by Jules Witcover

In the current era of staged political events, it was risky the other day that President Obama took part in a freewheeling town-hall meeting on CNBC, the network's cable business channel, on his handling of the troubled economy.

The session was moderated by John Harwood, a New York Times political writer and CNBC analyst who brought unbiased reportorial skills to a hard-hitting interrogation of the president's responses to sharp business-community gripes.

The meeting occurred as the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private board of leading economists, had just declared that the Great Recession had ended in June of 2009. The proclamation did not square with the impression of millions of Americans still unemployed or otherwise suffering from its economic devastation.

Harwood opened by asking Obama how it was that "many leaders in business think you and your policies are hostile to them, and many ordinary Americans think your policies are helping Wall Street and big business."

The president quickly acknowledged that the worst was far from over. He went on to recite his familiar defense of what an economic mess he had inherited, and what he had done to dig the country out of the hole and to stabilize the financial system. He cited "eight consecutive months of private-sector job growth" but said it "is going to take a little more time" to put the country back on its feet economically.

Harwood went directly at public perceptions of Obama, fanned by critics, about "your background, the racial heritage, where you grew up, Ivy League education." All this, he said, might lead voters to think Obama "may get it intellectually but he isn't feeling what I'm feeling."

The president basically dismissed the suggestion, saying his own history as the son of a single parent and beneficiary of public help made his life "a testimony to the American dream." The public frustration, he said, really stemmed from the high joblessness, fears of home foreclosure, and the economic uncertainty with which he was coping.

The moderator then gave the floor to a business executive who respectfully but firmly confronted Obama with her impatience. She said she was "exhausted of defending you" and "deeply disappointed of where we are," asking "is this my new reality?"

Harwood aired a video in which a wealthy businessman said Obama should not "make people in business feel like we're villains or criminal," leading the moderator to ask him: "Are you vilifying business?"

And he told Obama that some businessmen "may think that deep down you think that working for profit is morally inferior to the kind of work you used to do as a community organizer. Is that how you feel?"

The president denied it, responding with a paean to private enterprise that "government can't create the majority of jobs. ... In fact, we want to get out of the way of folks who have a great idea and run with it."

Nevertheless, a hedge-fund manager speaking as a representative of "the Wall Street community" told him: "We have felt like a pinata. Maybe you don't feel like you're whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we've been whacked with a stick."

Obama pushed back. "I think most folks on Main Street feel like they got beat up on. ... There is a big chunk of the country thinks I have been too soft on Wall Street. That's probably the majority, not the minority."

Earlier in the session, he gently chided his Wall Street critics, saying "some of the same folks who complained were the same folks who if we didn't make those actions on Wall Street would have lost everything they had. They didn't mind us intervening when we were helping them, but they minded us helping some other folks."

Throughout, Obama navigated the minefield with the dispassion for which he is now so often criticized. In the process he made effective debating points for his slogging approach to economic recovery.

In a time of high emotional feelings, though, it's a question whether cool reason will generate the political support he needs to keep Congress in Democratic hands this fall.


Available at

Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future

The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama

The Feminine Mystique

The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy

The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics

Bush on the Home Front: Domestic Policy Triumphs and Setbacks

The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grassroots to the White House


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Obama Talks Back to Business | Politics

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