VIDEOS FROM PRESIDENT OBAMA'S SPEECH
Thousands gathered to catch a glimpse of the President while visiting the Fort Myers area. Watch »
2009: PRESIDENT OBAMA VISITS FORT MYERS
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- PHOTO GALLERY: President Barack Obama visits Fort Myers
- VIDEO: Local offers house to homeless woman
- VIDEO: President Barack Obama: Town Hall: Part 1
- VIDEO: President Barack Obama: Town Hall: Part 2
- VIDEO: President Barack Obama: Town Hall: Part 3
- VIDEO: President Barack Obama: Town Hall: Part 4
- VIDEO: President Barack Obama: Town Hall: Part 5
- RAW VIDEO: Scenes from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
- RAW VIDEO: Security at airport
- RAW VIDEO: President Obama's motorcade
- VIDEO: A song for Obama
- VIDEO: Camped out to see Obama
- VIDEO: Michael Bukowski talks about President Obama and the market
- VIDEO: Marvin Bryer talks about getting to see President Barack Obama
- VIDEO: Andamo Carr talks about getting to see President Barack Obama
- PHOTO GALLERY: Obama tickets run out
- BLOG: Daily News blogs about Obama's visit to SW Florida
- STORIES: Read more stories about President Barack Obama's visit to Fort Myers and the stimulus plan
FORT MYERS — The cries for jobs, the appeals for loans and the desire for a bigger safety net.
President Barack Obama heard it from all sides of a Fort Myers stage when he visited the foreclosure capital of the nation on Tuesday.
In a town hall meeting that often sounded like a cross between a pep rally and a sober recounting of past mistakes, Southwest Florida residents laid out their concerns.
Some were deeply personal.
“We need our own kitchen and bathroom,” a 61-year-old homeless woman pleaded with the president at one point.
Tuesday’s visit, the second of four presidential trips to troubled areas across the nation, comes as Obama pushes his $800 billion-plus stimulus package in an effort to create 4 million jobs in the next two years.
Declaring the “time for talk” over, the president warned that hesitation could only carry serious consequences.
“I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act in the face of this crisis will only worsen our problems,” Obama told a crowd of hundreds at Fort Myers’ Harborside Events Center.
By midway through the meeting, the president had already moved a step closer to his goal: An aide passed him a note that said the Senate had just passed its $838 billion version of the stimulus package.
The House and Senate versions need to be reconciled before the bill can become law.
Lee County differs from Obama’s other three stops along the tour, Midwestern cities with heavy job losses in manufacturing industries. In 2008, more Lee County homes received foreclosure-related filings than homes in any other metropolitan area in the nation. The median home price in the county dropped nearly $150,000 in the past three years, leaving many residents owing more than their homes are worth.
Obama said he watched the state’s slide as his presidential campaign progressed last year.
“I was hearing about Florida suffering the first recession it had in 16 years,” he said. “We didn’t know then how deep it could go. Well it went deep. It got worse. And the stories I heard here in Florida, I carried with me to the White House.”
The president offered few suggestions for stemming the tide of foreclosures, however. Instead, his stimulus package aims at job creation, one leg of what he describes as a three-legged stool of economic recovery. Preventing foreclosures and freeing credit make for the other two legs, he said.
One audience member, Adam Palmer, asked why few banks agree to loan modifications, a situation that creates more foreclosures which, in turn, lowers nearby property rates. Obama told him that modifications were difficult due to the fragmented nature of many recent mortgages, which were often sold to investment houses.
Loan servicers would need to become more involved in managing the loans, he said. He promised to address foreclosures, specifically, in the coming weeks.
Job creation is a critical concern in Lee County, where a 10 percent unemployment rate ranks as one of the state’s highest.
Obama pushed his stimulus plan as the best option, if an imperfect one, for generating jobs. The plan, slated at $819 billion in the House and $838 billion in the senate, would provide $275 billion in tax cuts and create massive spending for infrastructure, education and social services across the nation.
The president highlighted how certain facets of the package could help Floridians, noting that 6.9 million families in the state would receive a $1,000 tax credit and 195,000 families would receive a boost from a $2,500 college tax credit.
Critics have called the spending irresponsible. Obama said other ideas have run their course.
“That’s what the election was about,” he said. “You rejected many of those ideas because they didn’t work.“
Local leaders joined the president’s push. In interviews, Fort Myers mayor Jim Humphrey and Cape Coral mayor Jim Burch each said they supported the bill as a kick-start to their cities’ torpid economies.
“We need roads (to be improved), such as State Road 82,” Humphrey said. “It’s at ‘Service Level F’, which means ‘failure.’”
Burch mentioned improving water and utility projects, as well as the Chiquita Boat Lock.
“Our economic engine has stalled and we need to jump-start it,” he said.
Nine U.S. Representatives from across the state attend the town hall meeting, including high-profile Democratic standbys Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. Noticeably absent was local Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers.
Stephanie DuBois, Mack’s press secretary, said the congressman only heard about the town hall last Friday, after it was made public. He received an invitation on Monday evening, she said.
“Had we known about the event and been invited, we would have considered going,” DuBois said.
Before the meeting, Mack released a press statement decrying the stimulus as wasteful.
Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican and a supporter of the president’s plan, opened the meeting by noting Florida’s budget deficit.
“To be candid, it’s getting harder every day,” he said. “It’s getting harder every day and we know it’s important to pass a stimulus package.”
Obama’s opening comments lasted about 20 minutes. They were followed by a question-and-answer session lasting the rest of the hour.
Many audience members touched on their own experiences when speaking to the president.
Henrietta Hughes, a 61-year-old homeless Fort Myers resident, pleaded for Obama to help her find a home. Obama promised to have aides speak to her after the meeting. Instead, Chene Thompson, wife of state Rep. Nick Thompson (R-Fort Myers), offered Hughes a home in LaBelle. She and her husband couldn’t live outside the district, she said, and she didn’t want Hughes to remain homeless.
“If I can give her a place to live even for one night, it’s better than her car,” she said.
Perhaps the most energetic question came from 19-year-old Julio Osegueda, a self-described four-and-a-half year McDonald’s employee — and Edison College communications student — in search of better job benefits.
Obama mentioned a $2,500 college tuition credit as well as a plan to expand health-care options across the nation. He also told Osegueda that his commitment to work should be a “source of pride.”
Osegueda looked to the ceiling and pumped his arms up and down in triumph.
Later Tuesday, a local baseball team, the Fort Myers Miracle, announced they were having Osegueda as their radio color announcer on the April 10 home opener, fulfilling the 19-year-old’s wish to be a disc jockey.
Martha Simons, a Bonita Springs councilwoman, asked the president about increased infrastructure spending.
“We’re falling behind in our ability to keep up with road construction, water projects ...” she said.
The president pointed to money the stimulus plan slated for infrastructure spending, and he noted the 2007 collapse of a Minneapolis interstate bridge as a warning to the nation.
“This should be a wake-up call for us,” he said.
Others questioned the president on unemployment insurance, health care and even whether the American people had the patience to await the effects of the stimulus package.
Obama also attempted to address doubts that the stimulus would have the desired effect on the economy.
“I expect to be judged by results, and I’m not going to make any excuses,” he said in his opening comments. “If stuff doesn’t work and people feel like I haven’t lead the nation in the right direction, then you’ll have a new president.”