By Ben Feller
ABOVE PHOTO: President Barack Obama is greeted by MTV’s Sway Calloway as he participates in a youth town hall event broadcast live on BET, CMT and MTV networks in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 14,.
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
WASHINGTON — Going after the youth vote, President Barack Obama got a grilling last Thursday from a mostly under-30 crowd of adults, who sternly challenged him across his economic and social agenda and showed little hesitation to press him for greater results.
The tone at the president’s latest town hall was set from the start when a woman identifying herself as a Republican asked Obama about his inability to foster his promised bipartisanship, and then a man disaffected with the state of the economy asked Obama: “Why should we still support you?”
What emerged was a sharp, genuine question-and-answer session, not the easy conversation Obama had with supporters just two days earlier when even he acknowledged that one question was a softball. The latest event was sponsored by MTV, BET and CMT, three entertainment networks. Yet there was hardly a moment of levity, let alone an easy question and nothing close to the time President Bill Clinton was asked at an MTV town hall about his underwear preference.
Obama got pressed about race relations, unemployment and taxes, illegal drugs and immigration, racism, Social Security, discrimination and bullying, Cuba, Sudan, education and the environment. The tone and scope of the questions seemed to dominate more than Obama’s answers.
Still, for Obama, it gave him a broad pre-election forum to explain his record of the last 20 months and, at times, testily defend it. His goal is to engage voters and try to rally them behind Democrats in the Nov. 2 midterm elections, in which his party is up against huge head winds and control of Congress is at stake.
The newsiest moment came when Obama defended his commitment to ending the ban on openly gay military service known as ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.”
A Howard University faculty member who said she voted for Obama in 2008 wondered about his “alleged commitment to equality for all Americans, gay and straight.” She asked why Obama didn’t just wipe away the controversial military policy himself instead of waiting for Congress. He responded that he had not just mentioned his stand on the issue, as the questioner had put it, but declared it, including in a State of the Union address. “That’s point No. 1,” Obama insisted.
The president said his administration is working to end the ban but Congress must act, too, because the current policy is the law of the land.
“This policy will end, and it will end on my watch,” Obama said. “But I do have an obligation to make sure that I’m following some of the rules. I can’t simply ignore laws that are out there.”
He spoke even as his Justice Department asked a federal judge Thursday to allow the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to continue while it appeals her order to end the ban on gays serving openly. Obama wants an orderly ending to the ban, and his government argues the court ruling would be disruptive in a time of war.
Most of the exchanges at the town hall were not contentious, but serious throughout.
Moderators asked young people on the social networking site Twitter to send in their greatest hopes and greatest fears for the country. Among the ones relayed to Obama: that the U.S. is turning into a communist country — and that Obama will be re-elected.
Responded the president: “This is an example of how our political rhetoric gets spun up,” Obama said. “The Internet and Twitter and all these things are very powerful, but it also means that sometimes instead of having a dialogue, we just start calling each other names.”
The president, seeking to recapture the voter energy of his 2008 campaign and channel it toward the upcoming midterm elections, is not on the ballot this time. But in campaigning to keep his Democratic allies in the House and Senate in power, he found himself as the focus time and again.
One man worried about his taxes going up and questioned the effectiveness of the massive economic stimulus plan that Obama endorsed. Obama responded that the stimulus is working — “3 million folks are working now that would not otherwise be working” — and said most people have gotten a tax cut on his watch.
On harassment and bullying, Obama said his “heart breaks” when he hears about incidents like the one at Rutgers University last month in which a college freshman committed suicide after an intimate encounter he had with another man was broadcast on the Internet. The president says he and the first lady spend time talking with their two young daughters about putting themselves in other people’s shoes and recognizing that being different is a positive, not a negative, quality.