- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

FORT MYERS, Fla. | President Obama on Tuesday for the first time staked his fledgling presidency on pulling the country from its economic crisis, promising dispirited Floridians that his stimulus plan will produce tangible results such as jobs and tuition credits or he’ll be ousted from office in 2012.

Mr. Obama — who earned a small victory when the Senate passed his $838 billion plan but then was hit with a big drop in the stock market — was on the campaign trail again, using a town-hall meeting and one of the best weapons in his arsenal: himself.

Mr. Obama engagingly pushed his plan, joking that he would pull from the best ideas “whether it comes from a Democrat or a Republican or a vegetarian,” acted as comforter in chief and, when asked about the country’s notorious impatience, he strayed from his standard answer that the crisis won’t be solved overnight.

“I expect to be judged by results and … I’m not going to make any excuses,” he said. “If stuff hasn’t worked and people don’t feel like I’ve led the country in the right direction, then — you’ll have a new president.”

But even after he cautioned people that they can vote him out of office, his nearly 2,000 fans at the town hall were already asking for four more years.

“Our economy will likely be measured in years, not weeks or months,” Mr. Obama said, and someone interrupted him with: “You have eight.”

The crowd at the Harborside Event Center erupted in laughter and cheers, and the president chuckled, “For our TV audience, somebody said I had eight — which we’re not clear about yet.”

See related story: Struggle begins on stimulus bills

Obama fever had swept this Gulf Coast town, which is struggling with the nation’s highest foreclosure rate. Unemployed Air Force veteran Kevin Gingras said he waited 10 hours in line to score one of the 2,000 tickets.

Mr. Gingras, of Cape Coral, said the stimulus would directly benefit him and put him back to work doing local construction. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but has no health insurance for himself or his 6-year-old daughter, Camryn.

“It’s disappointing he had to come here,” he said, adding that he was glad to get a boost of hope from the president. “We need help, not only in Florida but in the entire country.”

People at the event said the president lifted their spirits. At one point, Mr. Obama kissed a crying woman on the cheek.

Henrietta Hughes told the president she had an “urgent need” and was homeless and living in her car. “Please help,” she said.

“We’re going to do everything we can to help you; there are a lot of people like you,” Mr. Obama said, sounding choked up before giving her the kiss.

Later, Obama staff connected her with the executive director of a local housing group who was in the crowd at the event and said he could help her.

In the middle of the town hall, Mr. Obama received a standing ovation when he announced that the Senate had passed his $838 billion economic stimulus plan, and he called that “a good start.”

Mr. Obama said bipartisanship is crucial, even though only three Senate Republicans had voted for the plan. It had zero support from House Republicans earlier this month, and he has increasingly blamed Republican policies for the state of the nation.

“When the town is burning, you don’t check party labels — everybody needs to grab a hose,” Mr. Obama said, standing with the state’s Republican governor. “That’s what Charlie Crist is doing here today.”

Mr. Crist, who campaigned for Mr. Obama’s opponent last fall, is a key supporter of the plan. He agreed with the president’s characterization and called for its final passage.

“This is not about partisan politics, this is about rising above that, helping America and reigniting our economy,” Mr. Crist said.

Mr. Crist noted that his state has had to make tough cuts without raising taxes and “to be candid, it’s getting harder every day.” He said it was important to pass the stimulus plan to help education, improve infrastructure and provide health care for “the most vulnerable among us.”

The Fort Myers unemployment rate has jumped from 6 percent to 10 percent since last year, almost 3 percent higher than the national average. The area also has the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation. Twelve percent of Fort Myers homes were subject to foreclosures notice in 2008, according to the White House.

Pastor James Bing of Friendship Baptist Church adopted a somber tone as he offered the opening prayer at the town hall. “Some of us have come here today with hope destroyed,” he said.

Mr. Bing noted that jobs have been downsized and “people we once depended on have left us.”

“In 100 ways our hopes are dashed,” he said. “We pray that you will restore our hope today and help us to face the future with courage.”

But Mr. Obama said there must be more than that to fix the economy.

“I believe in hope, but I also believe in action,” the president said, adding later, “You’re doing your part down here, it’s time that Washington did its part too.”

Soon after he mocked the nation’s capital as imperfect, the Senate passed, on a 61-37 vote, the stimulus plan, which must be reconciled with the previously passed House version before a final bill can be sent to Mr. Obama’s desk.

He connected the audience with personal stories, telling the people at the event that they are the faces behind the statistics, and that in Washington “people think in terms of numbers and statistics.” He said he carried those stories from the campaign trail to the White House.

He went easy on Republicans while standing next to one, but warned his opponents that Congress must act quickly: “Doing nothing is not an option. You didn’t send me to Washington to do nothing.”

He even threw in a weather joke, something he did frequently on the campaign trail: “It is good to be in Florida, especially in February,” and closed with his tried and true: “Thank you very much Fort Myers, I appreciate you.”

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