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Economy Top Concern in St. Louis as Obama Hits 100 Days

April 28, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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As part of this week's series of reports from St. Louis, Gwen Ifill speaks with city residents about the shape of the economy and how President Barack Obama has fared during his first 100 days in office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we continue our spotlight city series on the eve of President Obama’s 100 days in office. Tonight we take the pulse of how people feel about the direction of the country.

Gwen Ifill has that from St. Louis.

GWEN IFILL: National polls show that, even in the midst of rising unemployment, frozen wages, and a continuing credit crunch, many Americans remain optimistic about where the economy is headed in these first 100 days.

It’s no different here in St. Louis, where we’ve been talking to people from all walks of life this week.

Mark Esters worked for Chrysler, assembling Dodge Ram pickups, but seven months ago, he lost his job and he’s still looking for work.

MARK ESTERS, unemployed autoworker: You have to keep looking. You have to look for something in your field or you have to consider, you know, getting a retraining or re-educated to go into another job.

GWEN IFILL: The plant where he worked just south of the city has laid off enough workers that it’s gone down to one shift. Next door, another Chrysler minivan plant is completely dark.

Still, Esters is optimistic about an Obama administration plan to create more green jobs.

MARK ESTERS: There are opportunities out there for us to be able to try to learn these new jobs. And I think the administration is trying to put — I wouldn’t say a spin, but put a positive outlook onto that, we’re going to be able to have some good jobs sometime in the future, you know, in the early future, hopefully.

Mixed feelings on the economy

GWEN IFILL: In St. Louis's trendy Loop neighborhood, we found white-collar workers who were economically stressed, yet also still hopeful.

MUYMBI BYNUM, teaching assistant: I have two brothers who worked a long time, a brother in New York who worked for IBM for 30 years and was laid off. And that was a surprise to him. Another brother who worked for Morgan Stanley for 14 years who was laid off.

And they're both hoping to, you know, get back up again. But they were both very surprised. And they have big mortgages. You know, they both live in New York. But they're both optimistic, also.

GWEN IFILL: Do you and the people you know feel insecure about this economy?

JOHN WHITEHEAD, occupational therapist: Oh, I think they've gone through a rough time. I think Obama brings promise. We're still -- I think people are still hurting. I think their pockets are still tight, but I think he brings promise.

I mean, I'm talking about, just as much as last summer, our gas was exorbitant. And now we have a little more room, a little more money back in our pockets, where we're able to fill up our tanks, and do our shopping, do some other things we need to do.

HOPE WHITEHEAD, lawyer: We've been middle class the entire time, just very few growth opportunities. We've been caught in the credit crunch with skyrocketing surprised fees.

We've been caught in the college student loan problems. We have a son that was in college. So we've been caught in all of the middle-class spiraling down of the economy.

So it has nowhere to go but up for me. So I'm very optimistic.

GWEN IFILL: Many Americans say they are troubled by the president's decision to bail out failing banks and industries.

HOPE WHITEHEAD: We needed money to flow throughout this economy. Something had happened. There was a stop. And we needed to move forward. So I think he was right in focusing on taking the banks and making them responsible.

I think he had to do something with the auto industry. I mean, you know, we don't want to bail them out, either, but what were you going to do? And I, for one, see all of it as an investment in our future.

Skepticism on bank bailouts

GWEN IFILL: Curt and Lisa Bingham, who were out celebrating their three-year wedding anniversary with a trip to a Cardinals' game and a frozen custard at a St. Louis landmark, see things differently. Count them among the skeptics.

CURT BINGHAM, student: Government solutions just aren't working. I think they're gumming up the works more than anything, because banks are just sitting on the money.

It's not like -- I mean, it sounded good when they came out with the ideas, but there's always something when the government tries to take over or help out an industry, there's always something they're not anticipating. And I just felt like they hurried through it to do something for the sake of doing something rather than actually fixing the problem.

GWEN IFILL: So you question some of the decisions that have been made for bailouts and that sort of thing?

CURT BINGHAM: Yes. Yes. I voted for George Bush. And until '08, I was real happy with his presidency. But as a whole, I just think the government needs to get out of the way and let the American people make this economy recover.

And, you know, the only thing government can do at this point, I think, is help with tax cuts or tax breaks for us. And other than that, I don't think there's anything else they can do.

LISA BINGHAM, factory worker: There have been quite a few things I've been disappointed in, but it's still early. So hopefully we'll see some better decisions being made in the future.

BOB PUFF, small businessman: I think we ought to do it like they did in the past, lower taxes. It's all about this printing all this money and giving it out to people that don't deserve it. I think they should have let them gone bankrupt, and let them start over, go into Chapter 11, and restructure their programs, and go from there.

Anticipating Obama's town hall

GWEN IFILL: President Obama arrives in suburban St. Louis tomorrow for a town hall meeting marking his first 100 days in office. He's likely to find supporters and naysayers who have more questions than answers.

MARIBEL SANTOS VILLAMAYOR, lab scientist: I'm going to ask him how the -- when's the stimulus coming, if it's going to really help our economy? And hopefully it will, so that, you know, a lot of people won't get laid off and, you know, have a secure job.

CHARLIE CRAIG, businessman: I sometimes feel like maybe they're still a little bit, too, you know, considerate of the Wall Street people. I think, you know, they need to just really knuckle down on those people and get things straightened out.

GWEN IFILL: But even as a late spring turns to a sudden summer, many in St. Louis seem willing to watch and wait.

ROSEMARY HOANG, retail store manager: I think people just need to be patient. And he's got a plan. And I think, you know, there's going to be hiccups on the way. There has been. And I think the way he's gone about it in some ways people think it's kind of aggressive, but I think it's better than what I think we've had.

MARK ESTERS: We, as Americans, we can be impatient sometimes. I mean, it's only been 100 days. And we really have to, you know, try to stay steadfast and really look at this 365 days from his inauguration and January 20th next year look back and see what changes have been done.

And if the future is prospering at that time, then we can try to grumble if nothing happened then. It's too early now to really try to put a mark on President Obama and say that he's not doing a good job.

GWEN IFILL: Apparently the countdown is not ending, only beginning.