Stimulus plan focus of presidential visit
An audience of 1,500 people greeted President Barack Obama with a sea of lofted cell phones and cameras Tuesday as he entered the Harborside Event Center in Fort Myers, clamoring to capture a piece of local history.
Obama delivered a 20-minute speech emphasizing the need for a more than $800 billion economic stimulus package and how it will affect Southwest Florida residents, before taking questions from the audience.
“We cannot afford to wait. I believe in hope, but I also believe in action,” Obama told the crowd.
“We can’t afford to posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place,” he added, prodding recalcitrant Republicans to support the stimulus package.
Republican Gov. Charlie Crist embraced the bipartisan spirit advocated by Obama, and stressed how the stimulus could help Florida balance its budget and jump start infrastructure projects.
“We need to do this (pass the stimulus package) in a bipartisan way. Helping the country should be about helping the country, not partisan politics,” Crist said before introducing the president.
In a moment of serendipity, Obama announced to the crowd that the Senate passed its $838 billion version of the stimulus plan. The news was met with raucous applause and chants of “Yes we can” by the audience.
“That’s great news,” Obama said.
“You know why it passed? They knew I was coming down to Fort Myers. They said, ‘We don’t want Fort Myers mad at us,'” he added.
However, the president’s pleas for bipartisanship were not reflected in the Senate vote, which came down 61-37, with all but three Republicans voting against the bill.
The Senate version now must be reconciled with the $820 House version passed in January, before being submitted for Obama’s signature. The president has asked Congress to have the stimulus legislation on his desk by Monday.
One person relieved by the news was Lehigh Acres resident Antoinette Johnson, who said before Obama’s speech that she is looking for the government to come together to pass the stimulus legislation.
Johnson also wanted to hear about the stimulus package’s affect on jobs and education.
“(Obama’s) daughters are the same age as my sons, and I want to make sure that when they graduate from college, they have jobs available to them here and are not being shipped overseas,” she said.
The president did address the issue of job creation in his speech.
“More than 90 percent of the jobs created by this plan will be in the private sector — 90 percent — and they won’t be make-work jobs. They’ll be jobs that lay the groundwork for our lasting economic growth, jobs that put people to work today preparing America for tomorrow,” he said.
Obama’s visit was his second stop in as many days to an area hit hard by the economic crisis. Obama stumped for the stimulus plan Monday in Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate has risen from 4.7 percent to 13.3 percent in the past year.
Obama said he is familiar with the economic troubles in Southwest Florida.
The Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area’s foreclosure rate led the nation in 2008, and Lee County’s unemployment rate rose to more than 10 percent in the past year.
“This isn’t new. When we were campaigning down here we heard about the first recession in Florida for 16 years. It’s gotten worse, and all the stories I hear here and in Indiana, I take back to the White House,” Obama said.
Southwest Florida resident Adam Palmer was among the first to ask Obama a question. He inquired how the stimulus package would address the lack of willingness among banks to rework mortgages that are in trouble but not yet in default.
“The question is, can we work to develop ways to make the banks understand it’s in their best interest to rework those loans?” Obama said.
He added that the problem is compounded because mortgages are not owned by a single entity anymore, but have been bundled up and sold in “slices,” making it harder to adjust a mortgage.
More specific housing policies will be released in the coming weeks, Obama said.
“We didn’t want to overshadow the importance of the stimulus by announcing our housing plan. I’m going to be making an announcement in the next couple of weeks about our overall plan,” he said.
The last person to question Obama, Edison State College sophomore Julio Osegueda, asked about help for people who have a job but are struggling with the lack of more ideal available opportunities.
“I’ve been at the same job, which is McDonald’s, for four years because I can’t find another job. What is the plan going to do to give extra benefits for those people?” Osegueda asked.
“You’ll actually see some of the benefit from the tax breaks. We want to make it easier for you to go to college,” Obama responded, referring to a $2,500 tax credit for college students included in the stimulus plan.
Osegueda asked his question with such enthusiasm and exuberance that he garnered the attention of local and national media in two languages after Obama’s speech. He was interviewed by one local television news station and four Spanish-language news stations, and also was asked to be on the CBS morning program “The Early Show.”
Osegueda said his life was transformed by Obama’s answer.
“I feel like the old version of me just dropped to the floor and success is near for me,” he said.
While some Obama supporters, like Osegueda, were overjoyed at the stimulus legislation passing the Senate hurdle, others were more reticent about the plan’s prospects for success.
“I don’t know how good it’s going to be or how quickly it’s going to work,” said Fort Myers resident Frank Mesich.
He added that the stimulus plan is a good idea, and he was inspired by Obama’s appearance.
“I feel hope,” Mesich said.