Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Goshen College faculty and students reflect on President Obama's Elkhart town hall

"Thankfully, in response to one of the last questions, President Obama did say that he would do his best to have the educational dollars reinstated in the budget conference negotiations between the House and Senate versions, so he can sign the bill. For the sake of college students of tomorrow, I hope he can keep that promise."

— James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen College.

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More than 2,000 people were on hand Feb. 9 in Elkhart for President Barack Obama's town hall meeting at Concord High School. Among them were several Goshen College faculty and students. They shared their brief written reflections on what they saw and heard — and what two would have asked Obama if given the opportunity.

President James E. Brenneman
"I was grateful that Terri and I were able to attend President Obama's first town hall meeting since his inauguration as our 44th president. I was also glad that he chose to come to Elkhart County, the 'white hot epicenter' of our economic woes as a nation, according to the New York Times. His stated purpose was to try to make a case to the American people why Congress should pass the economic stimulus plan as soon as possible. I appreciated his forthrightness, his honesty — even admitting his error in trying to appoint Cabinet nominees who had not paid their taxes. I really liked how he respected the intelligence of his audience with substantive explanations. He was never condescending. He was humorous, self-deprecating, and sincere. I especially liked that he laid out a four-point plan to help Elkhart County's industries retool to become the industrial engine of the new 'green economy.'

Had he picked me to ask him a question — he somehow missed my flailing hand way up in the balcony — I would have asked him the following question: "Mr. President. Thank you for coming to Elkhart today. My 12-year-old son Quinn and I had the privilege of attending your historic inauguration. My name is Jim Brenneman and I am the president of the only four-year residential liberal arts college in Elkhart County, a college that contributes nearly $31 million to the economy of Elkhart County each year, one of the few colleges in the state of Indiana more of whose graduates stay in Indiana than leave and so does not contribute to Indiana's  'brain drain.' We, too, have been affected by the economic downturn in Elkhart County. (By now, the audience would be saying — at least in their minds — "Get to the question, buddy!"). My question is this: Given the fact that this past weekend the Senate chose to cut from your plan nearly $100 billion designated for colleges/universities and other education programs, and given the fact that you have mentioned several times in your comments today how important education was to revitalizing our economic standing in the world, can you assure us that you will fight to keep in the bill scholarship dollars for low-income students, dollars for building new infrastructure on our campuses, and money for other educational programs that are now on the chopping block?"

Thankfully, in response to one of the last questions (anticipating my own?), President Obama did say that he would do his best to have the educational dollars reinstated in the budget conference negotiations between the House and Senate versions, so he can sign the bill. For the sake of college students of tomorrow, I hope he can keep that promise."

Jim Histand, Vice President for Finance
"I was glad to have the opportunity to go. It was clearly a crowd that felt very positive about Obama. He brought a lot of energy to the stage and came across as being genuinely glad to be there. I was struck particularly by his message that this (the economic stimulus program) is something we need to do, and we need to do it right now; it cannot wait.

He even admitted that some of what is in the plan will not work as it was intended, or as was hoped, but it still needed to be done and done now. Clearly, he knows how to work a crowd and his presence was electric to many in the crowd. I thought at times during his opening he began to skirt on the edge of launching into 'politicalese' and he did stoop to take a potshot or two at the 'failed policies of the past,' or at some of the prior administration's policies like No Child Left Behind, etc. In some ways it seemed like he was still reaching and or learning to find a concrete way to move from the campaign trail, i.e., failed policies language to the presidential trail, i.e., here is my vision for the future and this is what it will cost to get there and these are the outcomes, and this is why America needs to do this. He did some of both.

Obama handled questions very well, although he certainly wasn't very succinct as he promised he would be. He stayed on general themes, i.e., helping education, investing in alternative energy ideas, tax cuts, etc., but shied away just a bit I thought from specific language or conversation about direct impact on Elkhart County. I personally think that was wise, but some in the audience seemed to want him to specifically say how the money would flow to Elkhart County. He did a nice job at placing the issues here in Elkhart County in the larger context of the economic issues facing our entire system."

Malinda Berry, Visiting Scholar in Religion & Women's Studies
"There were several questions I had rolling around in my head that I would have loved the opportunity to ask the president.

• President Obama, several political commentators have talked about your deep appreciation of Reinhold Niebuhr's reflections on Christian faith, politics and human nature. As you know, the paradox is often the crux of his observations about the world. In listening to you talk about the current economic crisis, it seems to me that we're caught in one of Niebuhr's paradoxes: Americans can be as generous as we are greedy. What do you think is the best way for us to deal with this paradox and still create meaningful public policy?

• President Obama, you've made it very clear that critics of the stimulus package who claim the bill is chock full of pork and earmarks are wrong. How can we humble voters and citizens hold politicians and irresponsible media pundits accountable for making a lie/distortion one of their talking points as they oppose your plan?"

Joe Friesen, junior, environmental science major from Goshen
"As I was waiting in line to enter Concord gym, it struck me how out of the ordinary this experience was.

In an odd feedback loop, I realized that I wasn't merely excited to hear our president speak, I was excited by the fact that I was excited at all, which made me all the more excited.

I went expecting to see politicians. I was ready to hear maneuvering and rhetoric, and so I was surprised when a local unemployed RV worker introduced Barack Obama. I expect there were many unemployed people in attendance. Going to this town hall meeting helped me to put a face with a number like 15.3 percent — our local unemployment rate. It's easy to ignore a number. It's hard to not be moved when somebody asks for help to regain their home or job."

Hannah D. Miller, senior, peace, justice & conflict studies major, Scottdale, Pa.
"It was quite an honor to be able to attend President Obama's town hall meeting, especially because it is the first public meeting he has given outside of the White House since assuming the presidency. I thought Mr. Obama explained the economic stimulus package concisely and answered questions with integrity and honesty. He highlighted the necessity for creating jobs for long-term benefits — improving infrastructure, schools and our renewable energy sources.

By addressing the needs in Elkhart and the surrounding areas, he assured that more than 90 percent of the money from the stimulus plan would go toward the common citizen. I was especially pleased with his emphasis on creating jobs that explore and develop renewable energy and take our dependence off of fossil fuels. President Obama addressed the fact that this economic plan is not perfect but also mentioned that it does not have any earmarks and that the Obama administration is working toward more ethical politics. Though the town hall discussion was short, it was an exciting and motivating experience."

Lane Miller, senior, Bible and religion major, Danvers, Ill.
"I certainly found the President to be an engaging and dynamic speaker. During the question-and-answer time, he was direct and honest in his responses. The crowd was obviously supportive as well. We often stood and cheered. I cannot think of any point with which I disagreed, but I did find myself wondering why we were all so excited to see him. Our group of students was certainly enthusiastic and supportive, and since the speech dealt with domestic policy and general social issues in which our college is usually invested, this did not seem out of the ordinary.

But I felt slightly uneasy with an outward show of support. For me there is a line between support for Obama's policies, and support for Obama as the President. On the campaign trail, Obama was an ideology, but he is now in reality the President of the United States. Therefore he is directly responsible for our wars of aggression, our missile launches, and the philosophy of force that, though he has reinterpreted it, is still central in our foreign policy. I support the direction that the President is taking with the country, but I'm uneasy with support of the man, which inherently includes support for his office."

Jheny Bianney Nieto, junior, social work major, Three Rivers, Mich.
"It was my first time seeing Obama in person and to just realize that his last campaign visit was to Elkhart and that he is now coming back and making this his first visit after the election just feels good.

He saw the need of the community and came back to talk to the community, not only to their representative, Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore; he came back and interacted with all those who are being affected by the decisions of those in power.... It's easy to almost forget that he is the President of the United States when one hears him speak, before our eyes, he becomes one of us, a community organizer who is there to advocate for those who have for so long been ignored.

About the stimulus plan, at first I was a bit worried. What I kept hearing was that Dick Moore had these 18 'shovel ready' jobs on the line — construction projects, rebuilding roads, building a by-pass, and fixing up schools. That's great for those with construction skills, but I wondered where others would fit in? I mean not to say that women are not completely capable of building a road, but with children and specific gender roles that have been assigned to women, it is difficult to imagine a crowd of currently unemployed women running to apply for construction positions.

He addressed this concern clearly, specifically naming the diverse jobs that needed to be done, all which would require a diverse range of skills. On my way out of the meeting, I mentioned this to [a friend], and a guy who was walking close to us said, 'Well, I'm a construction guy, so I was glad to hear that there would be positions open for me, but now that I know that my wife will also be able to get a job, I'm even more glad.'

One of my other concerns was regarding the future of those who will take the construction jobs, many of them coming out of the RV industry, getting trained to be able to build a road or whatever, and in a year or two, they'll finish those projects, and then what? These projects are all ideal for the well-being of the nation, the economy, for Elkhart County. But what about those workers? Where will they go then? I am a strong supporter of the plan, and I see it necessary to do something about it now, but it wouldn't hurt to think about the future of the workers as well."

Brian Wyse, senior, accounting major, Seattle, Wash.
"Listening to Barack Obama on his first official trip as President was a special honor. The long lines in the cold were worth the intimate experience in the Concord High School gym. With more than 2,000 people in attendance, the Goshen College student delegation was pleased to participate in the town hall meeting from our vantaged viewing point near the top of the bleachers on the President's left. The vast majority of those in attendance were delighted to have the President's attention directed towards the suffering Elkhart County. Even those who might not have ascribed to the same political agenda were anxious to listen how Barack was bringing his promised change.

The dire situation in northern Indiana, made any news welcome. The crowd was especially receptive to policies that would directly affect the 'working class,' unemployment benefit extensions, health care insurance subsidies and others. People were jubilant and ready to celebrate the new presidency and hope for improvement. Generally, there were minor criticisms of the proposed legislation but everyone echoed President Obama's sentiments. 'Four more years of the same is not acceptable.' The future looks brighter now.

The most convincing part of the new stimulus package envisioned by President Obama is the emphasis on the long-term health of the economy. Policies such as infrastructure development, education spending, and health care system improvements create desperately needed government expenditures and private sector jobs now; and are investments in our future. However, there are still provisions in the proposed legislation that must be addressed."

—Compiled by Richard R. Aguirre

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