- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Despite the mostly friendly questions at President Obama’s recent backyard chats with voters, a nagging skepticism has emerged from participants anxious about the direction of the country and the president’s inability to make good on his promise to change the tenor and tone of Washington.

From the man in Des Moines, Iowa, who wanted to know why Mr. Obama was pushing for a tax increase on upper-income taxpayers to the woman who said health clinics were closing because they were treating too many illegal immigrants, the pointed questions have put the president on the spot and left him defending a mixed record over the past 20 months during which Democrats have controlled the levers of government.

“As the government gets more and more involved in business, and gets more involved in taxes to pay for an awful lot of programs, what you’re finding is you’re strangling those job-creation vehicles,” said a man who identified himself as a small-business owner. “One of the things that concerns me is that - repeal the Bush, quote, tax cuts … I don’t care if it’s 5 percent; that’s 5 percent that would create a job.”

For his part, the president has repeatedly tried to put the slumping economy in perspective, calling for patience as he argues that he has made all the progress he can given the current political environment. Acknowledging that there’s still much to be done, he offered a pep talk to neighbors gathered at the Des Moines home of Jeff and Sandy Clubb.

“America is still the wealthiest country on earth. We have the best colleges and universities on earth. It still has the most dynamic entrepreneurial culture on earth. We’ve got the most productive workers of just about any advanced nation,” Mr. Obama told his audience. “So I don’t want everybody to forget that, you know, that we’ve been through tougher times before, and we’re going to get through these times.”

Along with Des Moines, Mr. Obama’s tour has taken him to Columbus, Ohio; Fairfax, Falls Church and Richmond, Va.; and Albuquerque, N.M. It’s also taken him a town-hall gathering hosted by CNBC at the Newseum in Washington.

It’s no surprise that the typical scenes - a few dozen neighbors gathered in lawn chairs on a hot day, a pitcher of lemonade to the side as a couple of children run around - hearken back to Mr. Obama’s early days on the presidential campaign trail in 2007, as he’s clearly trying to reclaim some of that early charisma.

Most of the interactions are positive, with nervous questioners heaping praise on Mr. Obama for his health care overhaul that’s eliminated the hurdle of pre-existing conditions for a child or for a stimulus program that has helped their community. Other attendees have posed more abstract questions, such as how he would speak to “that message of hope” that he ran on, or “is the American Dream dead for me?”

Often, members of Mr. Obama’s audience want his view on their personal situations, such as one man at a town-hall event in Fairfax who identified himself as the owner of an information technology firm that is having trouble securing loans.

“How can we ensure that banking and lending institutions are going to actually lend money to small businesses? There have been numbers of steps done in that way, but so far I’ve been denied a loan twice,” the man said.

As in Iowa, the president regularly finds himself combating uncertainty and trying to pep up voters who still seem shell-shocked from the bum economy. But he also acknowledges the realities folks are facing.

In his CNBC town hall event, he used “frustrated” or some variation of the word five times, and in Falls Church last week, he acknowledged there is “a lot of anxiety and there’s a lot of stress out there.”

But his message is relentless - Democrats are making progress, often no thanks to Republicans, and voters need to stay the course.

“I know how frustrated people are,” Mr. Obama said at the CNBC event. “But I also know this: that an economy that was shrinking is now growing. We have finally tackled tough challenges like health care that we had been putting off for decades. I have put forward proposals that are going to require bipartisan cooperation in order for us to get government spending under control.”

As for Republican ideas, Mr. Obama told members of the audience in Richmond that the GOP is not putting forward “serious” proposals to grapple with the economy.

In turn, Republicans took aim at Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders for resisting an extension of tax cuts for individuals who make more than $200,000 and households that earn more than $250,000 a year.

“Republicans stand committed and we are in fact joined by enough of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to pass a bill before we leave here that will stave off tax hikes for every American. That’s the bipartisan position in the House,” Mr. Cantor said in a statement ahead of Mr. Obama’s visit to his district.

Even self-proclaimed Obama supporters have confronted the president with hard-hitting comments, such as a Washington-based chief financial officer who told him she is “exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for.”

Asked about the exchanges Wednesday, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said Mr. Obama “wanted to make sure that he was having a real exchange with the American people about issues that are important to them.”

“Is he as in control as he could be if he just stood in front of a room with a microphone and then just walked away? No. But he enjoys the back-and-forth with the American people and the true conversation that he’s having about all these issues,” Mr. Burton told reporters on board Air Force One.

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