For Obama, an online do-over of Tuesday's press conference

He revisits same themes, but Thursday's inaugural Internet town hall was a friendlier showcase for the president's ideas.

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Obama spoke during an 'open for questions' town hall meeting on Thursday. Questions were submitted and voted on by citizens via the Internet and answered live by the president.

President Obama delivered an opening statement about the budget. He fielded queries about his housing plan, healthcare, and veterans’ benefits. Then he wheeled about at a set time and left, disappointing those who did not get to ask a question.

A description of Obama’s March 24 press conference? Yes – and of his March 26 online town hall meeting.

The online meeting – billed as the first ever by an occupant of the Oval Office – amounted to something of a public affairs do-over for the administration. Mr. Obama got to readdress many of the same themes touched on during the earlier press conference, but with questioners that were more deferential and in a setting that played more to the president’s communication strengths.

“This is an experiment, but it’s also an exciting opportunity for me to look at a computer and get a snapshot of what Americans across the country care about,” said Obama.

The meeting was billed as one that would focus on the economy, and Obama’s opening statement reiterated his argument that much of the education, healthcare, and environmental spending in his budget is important to the nation’s long-term prosperity.

The administration’s proposed new spending on these issues amounts to a fraction of the long-term deficit facing the US, said Obama. Rising medical costs are the real problem, he said, because they are relentlessely increasing the costs of the already-giant entitlement programs of Medicare and Medicaid.

“Our healthcare costs are unsustainable,” he said.

This week, the real target of Obama’s words on this point might be Democrats in Congress, who are beginning the process of drawing up the framework for the year’s lengthy appropriations process.

Obama also said he would announce within days his decision on possible further federal aid for General Motors and Chrysler. He hinted that he might offer them more money, but only on condition that they undertake drastic reforms.

“Shareholders, workers, creditors . . . everybody is going to have to recognize that the current economic model of the US auto industry is unsustainable,” he said.

In other answers, Obama said:

•That his moves to help the housing markets mean up to 40 percent of current homeowners might benefit from refinancing their mortgages.

•That US factory jobs outsourced to developing nations in recent years are not all going to come back, and that the country instead needs to focus on solar, wind technology, and other “clean energy” jobs.

•That he is looking to Congress to help him design “an optimal system” for universal national healthcare, and that “my expectation is I will have a healthcare bill to sign this year.

Questions were submitted online in advance of the meeting, and the White House said it received more than 100,000. Proponents of the legalization of marijuana beseiged the system – so much so that Obama felt it necessary to respond.

“The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good way to grow the economy,” he said.

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