Obama in Onawa: “Where’s the beer?”

Illinois Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Barak Obama is holding a web-event today.  He’s sitting in the new public library in Onawa, Iowa talking to a small crowd of about 40. It’s being broadcast on the Internet, with people listening in from "house parties" in each of Iowa’s other 98 counties, and according to Obama a total of 5000 locations around the country, including one in Hawaii where Obama’s sister is stationed. (I am listening in via the web as well; thanks to NY Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, who is on site, for the crowd count.)

The prelude to the event was a conversation Obama had with the mayor of Onawa, who was sharing details about the celebrations planned over the next two years to mark Onawa’s sesquicentennial.  "That’s a pretty long party, though.  Two years?" Obama jokingly asked.

"It’s going to be a big party," the mayor replied. 

"Where’s the beer?" Obama asked, and people started laughing along with Obama.

"It’ll come," the mayor assured Obama and the crowd. 

Obama began by acknowledging those who are stationed in other spots around the country, including his wife, Michelle, who is in Des Moines at an Obama house party.  "Hey, sweetie," Obama said to his wife via video.

"It’s wonderful to see all of you and this I think is the expression of what I hope this campaign ends up being about because as I’ve said from the ouset of this campaign, from the day that I announced…I really believe that change happens when millions of our voices," Obama said, and a baby in the crowd screeched at this point.

"Like yours," Obama said, referring to the baby and getting polite laughter from the crowd, "come together and say that we want to create a better America."

Obama very briefly touches on health care, education, energy, Iraq and his own biography, then he closed his opening statement.

"Most of all, we’ve got a politics where the people are divided from their government and we’ve got a pervasive cynacism…At every stage in my career, I’ve always had this confidence that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they’re given a chance and that the best answers aren’t just the ones developed in some Ivory Tower somewhere or in the corridors of power in Washington, but based on people giving voice to their hopes and dreams and communicating that to our government and the government being responsive so that’s the reason I love doing town hall meetings and I love doing house parties and we want to organize our campaign around the idea that everybody here is going to have an investment in the campaign and that all of you have the possibility to influence what we talk about, how we’re organizing ourselves, not just here in Iowa, but across the country.  I really think that if everybody here feels invested and is paying attention, this time out in an election that I think is going to be historic then not only can we win an election but we can also transform the government in the process."

Obama opened it up for questions at this point.   

The first question was about health care, and came from the mayor, who talked about how hard it was to buy insurance as a self-employed person.  There were some follow-up health care questions, including one guy who asked: "What’s your plan to get these things done?"

"Well, the plan is first gettin’ myself elected as president," Obama replied.  The crowd applauded.  Obama then talked about the importance of getting 60 Democrats "or Republicans who are interested in solving this problem" in the US Senate to "move affirmatively to get good things done."

"Change does not happen unless the American people demand that it happens," Obama said.  "….It’s got to be at the forefront of every political debate.  That’s how politicians ultimately respond….We haven’t built an organized political movement around this issue."

The next question was about the national debt (not the deficit).  "Why can’t we do something about eliminating the debt?"

Obama launched into an explanation about the difference between the deficit and the debt, and quickly turned to a kid in the audience.  "Are you razzin’ at me?   Yes, you are.  This is something you’ve got to worry about because we’re loading you up with a lot of debt," Obama began.  "All we’ll be doing is paying interest on the national debt and processing entitlement checks, so what are we going to do about it?  We don’t have any easy solutions….What we can do is institute pay-go….If you’re going to cut taxes, you’ve gotta find off-setting spending cuts.  If you’re going to raise spending, you’ve got to find a way to pay for it….Spend within your means and that way we’re at least no longer digging the hole….(argued health care reform was crucial, because Medicare spending is going through the roof, and debt can’t be paid off in that case)…We could probably save a lot of money…if we weren’t shipping out money…for foreign oil and a lot of the national debt…is as a consequence of us spending more than we can afford on energy."

Next question:  "My concern is about the middle class and what seems to be the decline…seems like the wealthy rich are gaining…as president, what would you do to reverse this process?" 

"Do people here share this feeling that somehow you’re seeing a lot more division between the very wealthy and everybody else?" Obama asked the crowd, and the crowd applauded.  "you know, I’m not that old.  I’m 45, but I remember growing up…most people had one car.  They didn’t have three.  Everybody in the neighborhood…was more or less similar and you do get this sense…that there have been these huge shifts in terms of the relatively prosperity of people in America and in fact it’s borne out by the statistics….Income inequality is higher…than 1928, since the Gilded Age.  It turns out that last year personal income went up by 9 percent total but that all those gains were among the top one percent.  In fact, the bottom 90 percent, their incomes fell slightly last year…So obviously you’ve got some trends that have to be reversed and I would make a couple of suggestions….Because of the global economy and the global marketplace, we’re going to have to become more competitive as a country…and that means we’ve got to put a lot more money into education….What we’re going to have to do also is to make sure that we’re investing in infrastructure in this country so every part of the country…have access to the digital economy…South Korea has better broadband lines than we do.  In an economy that’s driven by the Internet and technology, that doesn’t make any sense…The fact of the matter is, George Bush’s tax cuts disporportionately went to the wealthiest…and so one of the things that I think we are going to have to do is reverse some of those tax cuts (applause)…and take that money and invest…Nobody wants a hand-out and America’s never going to be perfectly equal…people who are innovators should be rewarded but what we should also make sure of is everybody is paying their fair share and those of us who are doing well should pay a little extra…So, I think that shifting our tax policies, even if we just went back to some of the tax rates for the wealthy…(Warren Buffet discussion….)  I’m curious though.  One of the reasons we don’t do this is every election cycle is what happens if you start talking about revering Bush’s tax cuts…you get these ads on TV (saying) "obama’s raising taxes"…

"I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society and I think we have lost that sense that we as a community…there are all sorts of things you’ve got to do…We have not been investing and worse yet, we’re running up the credit card….spending on things we should be spending…which is irresponsible…at some point, something’s got to give and I think that all of us have to have a conversation as a nation…"

The next question: "How can we establish clean elections…so we don’t have to worry about somebody swamping the media (with ads)?"

"We took some good steps this time out on the issue of ethics in Washington…pushing through some of the toughest ethics reforms since Watergate, banning meals and gifts from lobbyists, (no more bundling), eliminating the use of corp jets that were a major subsidy to candidates…but we haven’t I think dealt with the underlying problem in elections which is the huge amount sof money which are…I’ll be honest with you, I have spent a bunch of time…raising money because that’s the only way…It’s not something that is my favorite thing to do…(lauds Internet for "evening playing field" for fundraising)…do one of two things, either public financing of campaigns….(or) institute free tv time because that’s where all the money is going anyway…(saying to broadcasters) Look, this is part of the deal for you using the broadcast spectrum or you getting subsidies for some of the infrastructure you’ve laid…is you’re going to hve to provide a certain amount of free tv time…(urged audience to pressure politicians on issue)…It’s important for the public to say we are tired of how campaigns are bought…that’s when you’re going to start seeing change happen."

An ethanol question, about eliminating the tariff on Brazilian-made ethanol.

Obama said he didn’t want to replace foreign oil with foreign ethanol, but he said right now the capacity of the US ethanol industry will not be able to keep up with demand.  He also told the crowd he owns a flex-fuel vehicle.

We’ve talked about everything but the war, so let’s talk about that for a while," the next questioner began.  "…We still have another war going on & that’s the one in Afghanistan." 

"First of all, I’m proud of the fact that I was against this war from the start…(crowd applauded)…One our website you can actually read the speech I gave in 2002 five months before we launched the invasion of Iraq….I don’t take pleasure in being right but for those evaluating my presidential prospects..I showed pretty good judgement…(touted his plan to get combat troops out by March 31, 2008)…We can’t impose a military solution on what has become a sectarian civil war….(based on the "surge") For a brief moment, in certain neighborhoods you’ll see a reduction in violence…That is not a tenable strategy over the long term particularly when we’re losing hundreds of young men and women (and spending $$).  We can’t sustain it…I have made an arguement as odious as the Iran regime is, we’ve got to have conversations with them the same way Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet empire…If we say that we are willing to talk…then that flushes them out.  It forces them to show their hand and it gives us more leverage…on economic sanctions.  One last point on Iraq (redeploy troops in Iraq to Afghanistan)….We would be further along in defeating the terrorist network (if we had stayed on task in Afghanistan)."

The questioner followed up with a question about drug traffickingin Afghanistan.

The next question was from a man who described himself a political junkie (nice transition from being hooked on Opium to being hooked on politics, huh?). "Does anybody…send you any kind of summary?  How do you find your information? Do you find it from the news?"

"I watch CNN or I read the newspapers…I also have access, though, to briefings….but a lot of the issues that we face in the country today, you can actually get a pretty good idea of what’s going on just based on reading the newspapers….The one thing that I do think all of us have to do…is to dig a little deeper and it’s hard because everybody’s got jobs…paying the bills and sometimes when you come home you’d rather watch Sportscenter…my wife likes Home & Garden Network…but the information’s out there…and you’re probably not going to get it just watching the evenign news…Yea, you’ll get snippets….newspaper readership has gone down and I don’t think that’s a good thing.  The internet provides a lot of useful information, but you’re gotta be willing to search for it."

The next question was about data profiling & privacy issues.

Obama asked the crowd to voice an opinion.  "I’m afraid it isn’t just the federal government..it’s getting in to the hands of everyone…(laws) are meaningless because it’s already out there," someone in the crowd said.

"I happen to agree with you so I’m glad that’s people general opinion," Obama said.  "One of the reason I opposed Alberto Gonzales’ nomination as attorney general — I voted against his confirmation — was I had a sense that he was an attorney general who saw his job as being the president’s lawyer.  Well that’s not actually the role of the attorney general.  The president has his own lawyer.  He’s called White House Counsel.  The attorney general is supposed to be the people’s lawyer and is supposed to tell the president what the laws are on behalf of the people and is supposed to keep the president in check and let the president know, ‘Well, actually you can’t do that.’  He’s supposed to say no to the president and that’s not something Mr. Gonzales has shown any inclination to do which is part of the reason we’re getting into some of the problems that we have now."

Then, Obama launched into a general discussion about 9/11, Patriot Act. "Nobody’s an angel and nobody is invulerable to potential abuses of power….and we’ve lost that sense when it comes to our national security aparatus and I think that’s one of the things that we have to restore."

The next question came from a teacher, who asked about NCLB.

"Do you know enough honest, intelligent people to fill your cabinet when you become president?" the last questioner asked. 

"I do," Obama replied, as folks laughed.  "This is actually a good place to end.  You’d be amazed the number of smart, good people who would like to serve in government and would take big cuts in pay to serve in government. The problem is that our politics doesn’t reward those people and so a lot of those people just feel like ‘I don’t want to have to play the game’ and that’s why it’s so important for us to change our political culture. Think about what happened in Katrina.  FEMA used to be one of the best agencies in the federal government and the Bush Administration came in.  They fire or demote or sideline people who have been professionals there for years.  They put in Michael Brown whose main resume was running a race track some where.  Right?  And had been a lobbyist and had no training in emergency management so now people who’ve been there 15 or 20 years, they say to themselves: ‘Why am I going to be working for a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing? That tells me that my experience is disrespected.’  So you start seeing attrition, senior level people leaving  The same thing has happened in the Justice Department in certain areas like civil rights, for example, since the Administration has shown no interest in enforcing civil rights laws a lot of senior attorneys in the civil rights division just retired, they say ‘What the heck.  I’ll go make some money in private practice.’ 

"So you’ve seen a lot of discouragement and one of the things that I want to restore is a sense that government can make a difference in people’s lives.  It can’t solve every problem.  I’ve said this before.  Government can’t, you know, if Michelle’s mad at me, then government’s not going to solve that problem.  I’ve got to solve that by behaving myself better and being more considerate towards her.  It’s not going to solve every problem with the school system because at some point parents have to parent.. You know, the school system can’t replace parents in every instance.  We’re going to have to work harder because we’ve got global competition.  There’s no point in griping about it.  If Chinese or Indian engineers are working hard and honing their skills, we’ve got to recognize that the world has changed and we’ve got to meet that challenge, but government can make a difference in making sure that every child has opportunity.  It can make a difference in making sure that the benefits and burdens of this dynamic, global economy are spread evenly across the board. Government can make a difference in making sure that if you slip and fall, as everybody will at some point in their lives, that there’s somebody reaching down to help you get back up on your feet; that if you get sick, you aren’t going to go bankrupt and lose your house; that if you’ve worked all your life you’re not going to end up destitute in your old age because somebody decided they were going to get rid of your pension or underfund it; that government can make sure our children are inheriting an Earth that has clean water and clean air and the climate hasn’t completely changed.

"You know, there are important things that we can do together that we can’t do individually and what I want to do is restore a sense that this government belongs to us, that it’s not something that you’re just a person with a tv set who has nothing to do with you life,  that if all of us are participating that we can restore a sense of competance and a sense of honor to public service and if we do that then most of the challenges that we face I think can actually be solved.  I think we can create a health care system that is more rational.  We can create an education system that serves our children better.  I think we can create an energy policy that is good environmentally and good for our economy and good for our national security and we can restore our standing in the world.

"People have been telling me how discouraged they are that everybody hates America.  Let me tell you, the truth is that actually people outside this country still believe in America, otherwise they wouldn’t be so disappointed.  You knon, you can’t be disappointed with people who you don’t have high expectations for and the reason people are so disappointed is because they know that America is the still that last, best hope on Earth.  They don’t think the Chinese are going to be promoting liberty around the world. They don’t believe that Russia is going to create a more just world for children.  They think America could still do it, but they’re asking the American people to live up to our best values and our best ideals and so that’s what, hopefully, this campaign will be all about."

Obama closed with some chatter to the folks tuning in on the Internet, and asked for votes, then ended.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.