March 20, 2009
By Kenneth Kim
New America Media
COSTA MESA, Calif. With the ailing California economy and controversy over AIG bonuses as a backdrop, President Barack Obama kicked off a two-day trip to Southern California to rally public support for his economic policies aimed at pulling the country out of the current economic crisis.
Pres. Obama appeared Wednesday at a town hall meeting at the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, Calif. He spoke for about 20 minutes then took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and took unscreened questions from the audience for the rest of hour.
Before an audience of more than 1,000 spirited people, Pres. Obama sounded like a candidate again, pointing to the failed financial system and scolding greedy Wall Street bankers. But, he didn’t forget to mention his message of hope.
“You’ve got one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. Budget cuts are threatening the jobs of thousands of teachers across the state,” said Pres. Obama, noting the ongoing state budget crisis, rising unemployment rate, reduced home prices and other financial problems.
“We are not only going to make it through this crisis, we are going to come out on the other side a stronger and more prosperous nation,” said Pres. Obama to cheers.
Pres. Obama took full responsibility for the $165 million in bonuses paid to AIG’s executives shortly after it received $180 billion in a taxpayer-funded federal bailout.
“It’s hard to understand that a company that is relying on extraordinary assistance from taxpayers to keep its doors open would be paying anybody lavish bonuses,” he said. “It goes against our most basic sense of what’s fair and what’s right. It offends our values.”
But, the president said the buck stops with him.
“I’ll take responsibility,” he said. “I’m the president. We didn’t draft these contracts. We’ve got a lot on our plate, but it is appropriate when you are in charge to make sure that stuff doesn’t happen like this.”
When asked about immigration reform during the question and answer portion, Pres. Obama told the audience that the border must be secured. He said that it is “intolerable” for a half-million people who depress wages of American workers to cross the border each year, and there should be a crackdown on employers who hire undocumented workers.
But, at the same time, he said the country should bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and give them a pathway to citizenship that includes learning English and paying fines.
“It’s not going to be a free ride. It’s not going to be an instant amnesty,” said Pres. Obama, who insisted that unless the entire issue must be tackled all at once it won’t work.
Asked on the issue of organized labor, the president said actions need to be taken to assure that employee wages keep pace with the cost of living, something that did not happen over the last decade.
“All I’m trying to do is restore some balance to our economy, so that middle class families who are working hard can buy a home, go on a vacation once in a while,” Pres. Obama said. “They should be able to save for retirement, send their kids to college. That’s not too much to ask for, that’s the American dream.”
When a teacher who received a layoff notice questioned him how the federal government’s stimulus package will help teachers who are in danger of losing their jobs, Pres. Obama said that the funds are intended to retain teachers. However, he said keeping teachers in their jobs is just one part of the educational equation.
“We’ve got to provide better teacher training. There are teachers who may not know their subject matter as well as they should. They’ve got to be given more time for professional development,” he said. “We’ve got to have more flexibility, I believe, in terms of how we reward teachers.”
During Pres. Obama’s first town hall meeting after taking office, enthusiastic supporters repeatedly interrupted him, yelling “We love you” and chanting “O-bam-a.” People young and old crowded the aisles to take pictures of the president.
“I pray him for every day,” said Lillian Pereira, 49, of San Dimas, who emigrated from India about 25 years ago.
Thousands of people had lined up at the fairgrounds Monday night and Tuesday morning, hoping to get some of the limited free tickets for the event. But, many were turned away when tickets ran out. Some camped out Monday night at the fairground to secure tickets.
Quyen Vuong, 33, who works for the county, spent Monday evening waiting in the line in order to get her tickets to see the first black president in U.S. history with her 3-year-old son Matthew.
“I couldn’t let go of this once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Vuong said.
Pres. Obama toured an electric vehicle plant in Pomona, Calif. Thursday, before leading another town hall meeting at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex near downtown Los Angeles. He’s was also scheduled to appear on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” before departing Thursday evening.