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Obama hears state’s anxiety

At a town hall Wednesday during which people spoke of their lost jobs and their fears of economic problems to come, President Obama painted his ambitious policy agenda as the antidote.

Obama spoke to a crowd of about 1,300 during his first stop on a two-day swing through California, aiming to mobilize public support for his multi-trillion-dollar budget. In a state coping with job losses and home foreclosures, he quickly got a taste of how the sour economy had upended lives.

Dwaine Webber, 45, of Norwalk told of how he had lost a position at Toyota after 13 years and couldn’t find a job because of a two-decade-old felony conviction. A teacher told Obama that she and a colleague -- who had won a teacher of the year award -- had just gotten pink slips.

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Obama addressed the crowd with a mix of wonky detail about the roots of the economic collapse (even using the term “securitized mortgage instruments” at one point) and a promise that recovery was in the offing. Fielding a range of questions, he outlined his thinking on immigration, bank loans and school class size.

“I can’t tell you how long it’s going to take or what obstacles we’ll face along the way, but I can promise you this: There will be brighter days ahead, here in California and all across America,” the president said. “But that’s only going to happen if we pull together and focus on the big things -- focus on the long term.”

Some people had camped out overnight at the Orange County Fairgrounds to see the 44th president. When he arrived at 3:45 p.m., those who had packed into the sweltering auditorium stood and chanted: “Obama! Obama!”

The president tried to get them to sit, finally saying: “We’re going to be here a while.”

At one point, as the president was summarizing his budget plans, a man shouted: “I love you, Obama!”

“I love you back!” the president replied.

But as Obama strives to build public support for his agenda, he is finding that the $165 million in bonuses paid to AIG executives amount to a huge distraction.

All week, the White House has been awash in questions on the topic. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has been criticized for not using the government’s leverage as AIG’s de facto owner to block the bonuses earlier. Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) called on Geithner to resign Wednesday.

In the face of the swelling backlash, the White House has struggled to keep its agenda on track. And before he took questions in Costa Mesa, Obama acknowledged public anger.

“Now, I know a lot of you are outraged about this -- rightfully so,” he said. “I’m outraged too.”

“It goes against our most basic sense of what’s fair and what’s right. It offends our values,” Obama added.

He vowed to fix “the system and culture that made them possible -- a culture where people made enormous sums of money, taking irresponsible risks that have now put the entire economy at risk.”

Then he took questions from the audience -- and no one asked about AIG.

Obama’s visit to California is the latest in a series of trips he has made in hopes of keeping public attention focused on passing his budget and triggering an economic recovery.

He is using traditional town hall events to help get out his message, but he is also turning to less orthodox formats. Today, he will appear on NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in hopes of reaching a different kind of audience, a White House aide said.

California’s struggles underscore the risks of government inaction, the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing Obama’s plans. Figures released by the White House show that California’s unemployment rate was 10.1% in January -- more than a 4-percentage-point increase since December 2007. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, unemployment was 10.5% in January, the highest since 1983.

Statewide, housing prices have dropped more than 27% since 2006, the steepest decline in the nation.

In the audience, fears of job loss were clear. Webber, the laid-off Toyota forklift operator, provided an emotional high point. But when he explained that his past conviction may have rendered him unemployable, Obama struggled for the right tone.

The president talked about plans to invest in fuel-efficient cars that more consumers want. But he also sought to encourage Webber.

“The fact that you’ve been working steadily for 13 years, post-felony, seems to me a message that you made amends for your past mistakes and that you are rehabilitated, and that you’ve proven yourself in the job market,” Obama said.

The Santa Ana teacher who had gotten a pink slip asked whether money from the president’s stimulus package would go to urban school districts “that need it the most.” She said that classes in her school have as many as 44 students.

Obama said that virtually all of the education money flowing to states was “designed to retain teachers.”

He also said that “class size is something that we’ve got to deal with. You can’t have a fifth-grade class with 40 kids. There’s no teacher who can deal with 40 kids all at the same time -- especially if many of them are at different levels in terms of reading and math skills and so forth.”

Asked how he would fix a “broken” immigration system, Obama reverted to his themes from last year’s campaign. He said that he wanted a comprehensive overhaul, and that he would discuss border issues next month when he visits President Felipe Calderon in Mexico. Obama will make the trip en route to the Summit of the Americas conference in Trinidad and Tobago.

The president will have another chance to reach a national audience during a prime-time news conference Tuesday.

Before he left for California, the president spoke to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. He voiced confidence in Geithner, took responsibility for the AIG bonus fiasco and said that public anger was justified.

“I don’t want to quell anger.” Obama said. “I think people are right to be angry. I’m angry. What I want to do, though, is channel our anger in a constructive way.”

He laid out plans for a new authority modeled after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. that would prevent companies on the scale of AIG from collapsing.

“This is part of the broader package of financial regulatory steps that we’re going to be taking,” Obama said, “that ensures that going forward . . . we’re not going to find ourselves in these kinds of terrible positions again.”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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