March 26, 2009 -- President Obama warned America today during an online town hall meeting that the country hasn't stopped losing jobs in this recession.
The president picked a dozen questions from more than 100,000 that were submitted online or by YouTube during the last week as Obama made himself"Open for Questions" from regular Americans.
The overriding issue of the inquiries was about the country's economy and the president warned that despite signs of fiscal improvement, people could expect even more jobs to be eliminated before the unemployment rate stops rising.
"We're going to have to be patient and persistent about job creation because I don't think that we've lost all the jobs we're going to lose in this recession," Obama said.
"We're still going to be in a difficult time for much of this year. Employment is typically what's called a lagging indicator," he said.
Job losses continued to bedevil the economy. New claims for unemployment benefits last week rose to a seasonally adjusted 652,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 644,000, the Labor Department said today. The total number of people claiming benefits jumped to 5.56 million, a ninth straight record and the highest total on records dating back to 1967.
The entire event was live streamed on the White House Web site and officials said that nearly 70,000 people were logged on during the town hall.
Obama acknowledged that one of the most popular questions was whether to legalize marijuana. The pot question topped the categories of financial stability, "green jobs" and the budget, and was the second most popular query in the health-care category.
The questions suggested that legalizing pot would create jobs, weaken the drug cartels, and provide the government with a new revenue stream by taxing marijuana sales.
Obama had a little fun with question, but said with a smile -- and to some laughter from the invited audience -- "I don't know what this says about the online audience."
"No, I don't think this is a good strategy for growing our economy," he said, more seriously.
Obama spent considerable time touting two of the key priorities in his budget proposal: investing money in education and health care reform. As he has done in every chance he could over the last several weeks, the president defended his spending proposals as necessary for economic recovery.
Obama To Make Announcement on Auto Industry
Obama said he will be making an announcement on the auto industry over the next several days, but he did not reveal any specifics.
He said his general philosophy is that the U.S. auto industry must be preserved, but he also must protect American taxpayers so they do not foot the bill for the industry's significant mismanagement in recent years.
"What we're expecting is that the automakers are going to be working with us to restructure. We will provide them some help," Obama said. "If they're not willing to make the changes and the restructurings that are necessary, then I'm not willing to have taxpayer money chase after bad money. And so a lot of it's going to depend on their willingness to make some pretty drastic changes."
Obama said he hears the critics saying that his budget will add to the deficit, but he does not buy the argument.
"I just want to remind you that the money that we are spending on education, on health care and on energy, if you add it up, all of that increased money that we're spending, it still is not what's driving our long-term deficits," he said.
The Obama campaign used the Internet more effectively than any other campaign in history, so it comes as no surprise that it would continue that cyberoutreach from the White House.
"It's a way for the president to do what he enjoys doing out on the road, but saves on gas," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday.
Obama engaged in questions and answers for more than an hour, longer than his news conference in the East Room Tuesday night. He took a dozen questions, including four write-in submissions at the White House Web site, two video questions from YouTube and six questions from the audience in the East Room.
"You know, when I was running for president, I promised to open up the White House to the American people. And this event, which is being streamed live over the Internet, marks an important step towards achieving that goal," Obama said before he took his first question.
The Bush administration had an online series called "Ask the White House," where Americans could engage in a live chat with administration officials, but the president never participated.
In the days before Obama spoke, questioners weren't shy in grilling the president. One questioner took a shot at the Obamas' new swing set when asking about the country's economy.
"There is a $3,500 swing set outside your window. You proclaim 'we're all in this together.' As a millionaire, how do you relate to my struggle to merely get a job?" one American asked.
Jason from Detroit wanted to know whether any CEOs will go to jail for "destroying the economy."
Some Video Questions From YouTube
A question from Peter V. of Oregon focused on transparency. "Why aren't you giving the American public the chance to review these bills? In your campaign, you promised we would have at least 5 days," he asked.
Hope Mullinex, a college student, told ABC News that she found the openness and direct access to the president refreshing.
"It's coming straight from us. It's not going through lobbyist or senators or congressmen. It's coming straight from us, it's our issues, our opinions," she said.
Mullinex posted her concerns about rising tuition costs in a video on YouTube. "It's almost discouraging to go to college," she said.