ABC News' Vija Udenans reports:
Elyria, Ohio is the second stop on the "White House to Main Street" tour for President Obama to meet the common man.; He visited Allentown, Pa., in December.
Today, he toured retraining classrooms, he visited with students, he listened to unemployed workers, he watched production lines, and he got a custom-made helmet as a souvenir for the day.
After a week of Democrats losing the 60th seat in the Senate, hearing the drumbeat of falling poll numbers and fearing the fate of his health care reform, Obama left Washington, where he said “there are nice people, but they can drive you crazy.” To set the tone of the day, President Obama left the White House tie-less.
The White House schedulers packed his schedule full of encounters with workers in various labor forces and those looking for retraining in new fields. It was a day of personal encounters with middle America struggling in today’s economy.
New unemployment numbers released today ranked Ohio 13th in the country with a jobless rate of 10.9 percent, an increase of 3.5 percentage points in the last year.
At the center of the president's day was a town hall meeting with nearly 1,200 students, workers, small business owners and community leaders. President Obama fielded questions on issues hitting the questioners personally — on topics such as lead poisoning, patent law and truck driver training.
The president sought to find reassuring words for each question and frequently offered to get a staffer to work with the person posing the question.
To a mother of a 3-year old with lead poisoning, he quipped, looking a this watch, “I am sure someone from the EPA will be calling you in 5 minutes.”
Some issues were just personal desires to see and meet the president. One young man admitted he had no question; he just wanted to shake the president’s hand. Another had written Obama a poem.
No one asked him about foreclosures, rising credit card fees or health insurance reform. Before Obama left the stage, he offered his promise “to fight” for health care reform. He said he wanted to make sure insurance companies could not exclude pre-existing conditions, that lifetime caps could not be imposed, that children could remain insured with parents until they have steady employment, that health care costs overall would be reduced.
Before the town hall, the president visited EMC, a company making specialty metal parts for other companies. Their workforce had shrunk from 77 to 44, but the company was optimistic it would be able to rehire staff. Obama later described it as the future of American manufacturing, where workers could make specialty items with personal attention that factories in China or Brazil could not compete with.
The president stopped in to have lunch at Smitty’s bar and restaurant for a burger with the mayor of Elyria, William “Bill” Grace, and met more of the townspeople. He bought a bowl of chili for Shawn Hatcher, who was celebrating his 42nd birthday today, and posed for a picture with 98-year-old Charles Raynor.
At Lorain Community College Wind Turbine Manufacturing, he visited with students training in the new technologies that will install and maintain wind power generation systems. He watched as laid-off workers learning a new trade applied their previous skills.
He remarked to one welder, “Looks like you’ve done this before?”
The man replied, “Yes, for 30 years, sir.”
Before he left Elyria, the motorcade stopped in at Riddell Manufacturing Plant, where they make new sports equipment and recondition football, baseball and lacrosse helmets and shoulder pads. Riddell employs more than 300 people.
The Riddell workers presented President Obama with a gleaming, custom-made, presidential blue football helmet with a white facemask. The presidential seal was on the side and “44” was on the back.
Bloomberg reporter Ed Chen suggested “he’ll need it during the State of the Union.”
Obama responded, “That is a serious looking helmet. I can knock some heads with this.”
Of course, he had another idea as well: “When I watch the games on Sunday, I might have to wear it.” Then he added with a grin, “You have to drink beer through a straw.”
The president spent the day hearing and seeing the concerns of suburban Cleveland. He had heard the applause to his promises "to fight" for the citizens of Elyria and they had given him a small token of their efforts.