Jan. 22, 2010 -- Invoking some of the populist fervor that propelled him to the presidency, President Obama today defended his economic agenda and vowed to continue fighting for "meaningful health insurance reforms" and his banking reform proposals.
Speaking at a town hall in Lorain, Ohio, Obama addressed some of the steps his administration has taken, many of which have drawn heat, including the $787 stimulus package and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
"I knew it would be unpopular, and rightly so," Obama said of the program to save banks. "But I also knew that we had to do it because if they went down, your local banks would have gone down. And if the financial system went down, it would have taken the entire economy and millions more families and businesses with it. ... We would have been looking at a second Great Depression."
The president vowed to push forward in his fight against Wall Street.
"It's going to be a fight. You watch. I guarantee you when we start on financial regulatory reform, trying to change the rules to prevent what has caused so much heartache all across the country, there are people who are going to say ... It's another example of Obama being big government," the president said. "No, I just want to have some rules in place so that when these guys make dumb decisions, you don't end up having to foot the bill. That's pretty straightforward. I don't mind having that fight."
He also acknowledged the hurdles in one of his top domestic agendas, health care.
"We've gotten pretty far down the road, but I have to admit, we've run into a bit of a buzz saw this week," he said, as the audience laughed.
"I understand why, after the Massachusetts election, people in Washington were all in a tizzy, trying to figure out what this means for health reform, Republicans and Democrats, what does it mean for Obama? ... That's what they do," he added. "This is not about me. This is about you. I didn't take this up to boost my poll numbers. You know the way to boost your poll numbers is not do anything."
The president vowed to keep moving forward despite the challenges he is facing. In fact, he used the word "fight" 20 times in his speech.
"I'm going to keep on fighting for real, meaningful health insurance reform," he told the audience.
"There are things that have to get done. This is our best chance to do it. We can't keep on putting this off," the president said toward the end of the event.
This is not the first time the president has visited Lorain, Ohio. Two years ago, Obama was in this struggling small town and toured National Gypsum Co., a drywall factory that had operated seven days a week.
At the time, Obama pushed a jobs package that "must be done in a responsible way, without adding to the already obscene debt that has grown by $4 trillion under George Bush."
But within two months of his visit, word came that the factory would close indefinitely. With job figures, the president's approval rating in Ohio has also plummeted, from 8.8 percent when he was inaugurated a year ago to almost 11 percent last month.
"He was very, very upbeat, very optimistic about a lot of things that needed to be addressed," Dave Beetler, an operations manager at the factory, said of Obama's visit almost two years ago.
"You still hear in the news today, you know, little hopes and hints of the recovery. But, personally ... until we see people back to work, we just don't quite see a recovery," said Beetler, who is one of only two out of the original 70 still employed at the plant.
Ken Sauvey, who worked at the factory as a bulldozer operator for 34 years, has been looking for another job since it closed.
"There is none out there, for especially my age," said Sauvey, 55. "And that's why the younger generation will probably get the jobs before a man my age would be able to get a job."
Ted Fenik worked for National Gypsum for nine years before the plant went idle.
"I definitely don't blame Barack Obama for me losing my job," Fenik said. "When the housing industry took the slide down, you know, that's what killed us.
"We just need to bring more manufacturing jobs back to America," Fenik added. "You know, it just seems like they're all going overseas."
In an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos Wednesday, the president acknowledged he made a mistake in assuming that if he focused on policy decisions, the American people would understand the reasoning behind them.
"That, I do think, is a mistake of mine," Obama said. "I think the assumption was if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on this provision or that law, or if we're making a good rational decision here, then people will get it."
Today's town hall meeting seemed to be a part of the president's populist push to reconnect with Americans.
"There are some nice people in Washington -- but it can drive you crazy," Obama told the audience today as he kicked off his speech.
President Obama's Challenges
It may very well be one of the roughest weeks of the Obama presidency.
Amid disappointing jobs figures, speculation that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke may not be reconfirmed and Democrats' losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts to Republican Scott Brown, Obama has faced his share of bad news this week.
The president this week returned the focus to the economy with a push for new regulations to limit the risky behaviors taken by big banks insured by U.S. taxpayers. The announcement, said New York Times business reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, took Wall Street by surprise.
"Most of the CEOs and executives I spoke to had no idea this was coming and were shell shocked," Sorkin said on "Good Morning America" today.
"It's a game changer," Sorkin added. "It's truly one step from removing the casinos on Wall Street."
By preventing commercial banks from running risky hedge funds and private equity firms, the president said he was protecting taxpayers.
"Never again will the American taxpayer be held hostage by a bank that is 'too big to fail,'" the president vowed, suggesting ways to limit the size and scope of financial institutions.
But Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner privately expressed concern that the proposal would hurt the ability of U.S. banks to compete globally, according to sources.
"It needs to be done right," a source close to Geithner said. "How it gets implemented and how it gets defined is absolutely critical. We don't want to disrupt the ability of banks to lend."
The Treasury boss worries that political fears may be overriding economic considerations, another industry source said.
He is not alone in his concern. The Dow plummeted and closed down 213 points after Obama's announcement Thursday.
While the proposal may be a significant step, Sorkin said, it wouldn't fully solve the problem and is one of the many issues the White House has to tackle to fix Wall Street.
Will Ben Bernanke Be Reconfirmed?
As Obama pushed new regulations for banks, top Senate Democrats expressed uncertainty about having enough votes to reconfirm Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Bernanke, whose term expires at the end of the month, has been panned by some Republicans, who blame him for failing to stop Wall St.'s reckless behavior.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., all have put holds on Bernanke's nomination, which requires 60 votes to proceed to a vote. Three Democratic senators also have said they will oppose Bernanke.
"Under the watch of Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve permitted grossly irresponsible financial activities that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said in a written statement. "Under Chairman Bernanke's watch predatory mortgage lending flourished, and 'too big to fail' financial giants were permitted to engage in activities that put our nation's economy at risk."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., met with Bernanke Thursday and issued a statement saying that he believes "more pressure needs to be applied to banks to lend money to small businesses and keep more Americans in their homes."
The "American people expect our economic leaders to keep Wall Street honest and level the playing field for middle-class families, and I will continue to hold their feet to the fire to ensure this happens," Reid said. "As the Senate prepares to take up chairman Bernanke's nomination, I look forward to hearing more from him about how he intends to address these issues."
Burton today said the president believes Bernanke is the right man for the job and will be reconfirmed.
"The president has a great deal of confidence in what Chairman Bernanke did to bring our economy back from the brink," he told reporters. "He continues to think he is the best person for the job and will be confirmed by the United States Senate."
If Bernanke is not reconfirmed, Sorkin said, "then the whole game does completely change," adding that he believes Bernanke "will still probably get confirmed."