TOPICS > Politics > Elkhart Town Hall

Questions for President Obama: A Town Hall Special

June 1, 2016 at 10:09 PM EDT
President Barack Obama joins Gwen Ifill for a town hall conversation in Elkhart, Indiana, on topics ranging from the economic recovery, education and student debt, political civility, Syrian refugees and more.

ANNOUNCER: This is a PBS NewsHour special — Questions for President Obama.

Now, from the Lerner Theatre in Elkhart, Indiana, PBS NewsHour co-anchor, Gwen Ifill.

GWEN IFILL:  Good evening.

And welcome to Elkhart, Indiana, as we sit down with President Obama and the residents of this community to discuss their concerns, look back on his time in office and assess the feverish campaign to succeed him.

This marks the president’s fifth visit to the once and again RV capital of the world — a small city where the unemployment rate hit 19.6 percent his first year in office and now has dropped to about 4 percent.

But this White House isn’t getting any credit for that turnaround.  Residents here voted for Ted Cruz in this year’s primaries and Mitt Romney by two to one in 2012.  Even when President Obama won Indiana in 2008, just as the economy was crashing, Elkhart went with John McCain.

So what gives?

We’ve asked some of the people who live here to join us on the stage of the beautiful Lerner Theatre here downtown for an intimate conversation.

But first, the president of the United States, Barack Obama.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Hi, Gwen.

(APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  How are you?

GWEN IFILL:  Hi, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  It’s good to see you.

GWEN IFILL:  Thank you.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Hello.

(APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Thank you, guys.

GWEN IFILL:  Our residents have been waiting faithfully, patiently and eagerly to see you today.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, I’m eager to see them.

And this is a beautiful theatre.

GWEN IFILL:  It is beautiful.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Which got converted. Congratulations on a wonderful venue.

GWEN IFILL:  Some of them voted for you, some of them didn’t.  We’ll be talking about that…

“I always remind young people that despite all the challenges that we face right now, if you had the choice to be born in any one period of time in our history…it actually would be now.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, that’s what we’d expect.

GWEN IFILL:  — in a moment.

But I first want to ask by talking to you a little bit about this campaign.

What do you think it means when you hear the words “let’s make America great again”?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  I think America is pretty great.  And, you know, it’s interesting, I do a lot of commencement speeches this time of year.  In fact, tomorrow, I’m going to be going to the Air Force Academy to deliver a commencement for the second time there.  And I always remind young people that despite all the challenges that we face right now, if you had the choice to be born in any one period of time in our history, and you didn’t know ahead of time whether you were going to be rich or poor, black or white, male or female, you know, you just had to guess on what moment do you have a best chance of succeeding, it actually would be now.

That America is the strongest country on Earth.  Its economy is the most durable on Earth.  You know, we are a — a country that has incredible diversity, people are striving, working hard, creating businesses.  We’ve got the best universities in the world, the best scientists.

You know, so we’ve got — we’ve got some challenges and we’ve just come through a very rough stretch as a consequence of the financial crisis, but overall, not only are we recovered from the crisis that we had, but we’re well positioned to do extraordinarily well going forward as long as we make some good decisions.

GWEN IFILL:  And yet, many people, including probably some folks in this room…

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Yes.

GWEN IFILL:  — think the deficits have gone up and the jobless rate has gone up.  And, in fact, that their lives have not improved.

How — in fact, we have your nominee for the — the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party saying, Donald Trump, saying this — America is a third world nation.

How do you persuade — or I suppose, how does your likely Democratic successor, possible, persuade anybody that’s not true?

“The notion that somehow America is in decline is just not borne out by the facts.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, it’s important you said my successor, because Michelle would be very upset if she thought I was running again.

Look, you just look at the evidence here in Elkhart.  As you mentioned in the introduction, when I took office, this was the first city I came to.  And unemployment about a month after I took office, a month and a half after I took office, was almost 20 percent.  One out of 10 people were behind on their mortgage or in foreclosure.

Today, the unemployment rate is around 4 percent.  It’s only about one in 30 people who are behind on their mortgage. The RV industry, which is, uh, central to Elkhart, is on track to break records in terms of sales. And so that doesn’t mean that folks aren’t struggling in some circumstances.  And one of the things that I’ve emphasized is that there are some long-term trends in the economy that we have to tackle in terms of wages not going up as fast as they used to, some big costs, like college costs or health care costs that are still a challenge, people still worrying about retirement.

And so we’re going to have to make sure that we make some good decisions going forward.  But the notion that somehow America is in decline is just not borne out by the facts.  That…

GWEN IFILL:  But it resonates.  It resonates among a lot of…

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well…

GWEN IFILL:  — aggrieved people who are voting in big numbers for Donald Trump.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, look, — I think that what it is also — always been true in American politics is that when we’ve gone through a tough time — and we went through the worst financial crisis of our lifetimes.  I’m looking around and I — I think it’s safe to say that it’s been the worst in — in the lifetimes or memories of most people here.

Then you feel nervous.  People lost homes.  People lost savings.  People were worried about whether or not they could make ends meet.

And so we’re — even though we’ve recovered, people feel like the ground under their feet isn’t quite as solid.  And in those circumstances, a lot of times it’s easy for somebody to come up and say you know what, if we deport all the immigrants and build a wall or if we cut off trade with China, or if we do X or Y or Z, that there’s some simple answer and suddenly everything is going to feel secure.  And…

GWEN IFILL:  Why don’t — why don’t you mention Donald Trump by name?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  You know, he seems to do a good job mentioning his own name, so…

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  — I figure — you know…

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  — I’ll let him do his advertising for him.

GWEN IFILL:  Do you consider at all that any of the support for him is backlash against you personally?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, here’s one thing I would say — and I just spoke about this at the local high school.  I think Trump is a more colorful character than some of the other Republican elected officials, but a lot of the story that he’s telling is entirely consistent with what folks have been saying about me or the general story they’ve been telling about the economy for the last seven and a half, the last 10, the last 20, the last 30 years. And you can — you can actually describe the story fairly concisely, right?  The — the basic story they tell is that the problems that the middle class working families are experiencing has to do with a big bloated government that taxes the heck out of people and then gives that money to undeserving folks, welfare cheats or, you know, the 47 percent who are takers or, you know, whatever phrase they use, that businesses are being strangled by over-regulation, that, you know, Obamacare has killed jobs.

And the fact of the matter is when you look at it, the government, as a proportion of our overall economy, is actually smaller now under my presidency than it was under Ronald Reagan…

GWEN IFILL:  Let me read you something…

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  :  — I have…

GWEN IFILL:  — that Bill Clinton said, though.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  But let me finish, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL:  OK.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  We have fewer federal employees today.

GWEN IFILL:  Um-hmm.

“If people are feeling insecure and they’re offered a simple reason for how they can feel more secure, people are going to be tempted by it, particularly if they’re hearing that same story over and over again.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  The health care costs since I signed Obamacare have actually gone up slower than they were before I signed it.  Twenty million more people have health insurance.

So the arguments they’re making just are not borne out by the facts.  But what is true is that if people are feeling secure — feeling insecure and they’re offered a simple reason for how they can feel more secure, people are going to be tempted by it, particularly if they’re hearing that same story over and over again.

GWEN IFILL:  Perception.  So Bill Clinton said, “Millions and millions and millions of people look at that pretty picture of America you painted,” which you just described, “and they cannot find themselves in it to save their lives.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  The pretty picture that…

GWEN IFILL: The pretty picture of all the things that have gone well.  Why is there a disconnect between — that he’s describing here?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, look, here’s what has changed in the economy over the last 20 to 30 years.  Right after World War II, America was ascendant.  It was dominant around the world because Europe was blown up.  Japan was digging itself out of the rubble.  China was still a backwater.  Eastern Europe was behind the Iron Curtain.

There wasn’t much competition.  We were the only folks who were seriously making cars and trucks and appliances and you name it.

We had strong unionization, which meant that workers had leverage so that they could get a good share of a growing pie.  And people saw each year and each generation their standards of living going up pretty rapidly.

And what started happening is you started seeing foreign competition.  Unions started getting busted, so workers had less leverage, which meant their wages didn’t go up quite as fast.  You started seeing the end of defined benefit pension plans.  In terms of health care programs, if you had health care on your job, suddenly you were paying a lot of deductibles and premiums.

College costs started going up because the public university system, which used to be generously funded by state governments so that tuition was low, suddenly state governments were spending more money on prisons than they were on universities, which meant tuition went up.

You add all those things together, and people then start feeling more stressed.

Now, the answer to that is how do we get wages up; how do we make sure that you can save for retirement; how can you make sure that your kid can afford to get a higher education to compete for the jobs of the future.  And the question then is what is actually going to get that done?

To me, if we raise the minimum wage; if we make it easier not harder for people to unionize; if we negotiate trade deals that raise labor standards and environmental standards in other countries, instead of letting them sell here and we can’t sell there; if we make sure that we’re rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our infrastructure to put a bunch of folks in hard-hats back to work; if we make Social Security stronger rather than cutting it.

If we do those things, then we are going to see wages go up, labor markets tighten, and we will relieve a lot of the stress that people feel.  But if you look at the arguments that are being made by the Republicans and the actions that have been taken by those members of Congress, it’s hard to see how cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, deregulating Wall Street again, is somehow going to benefit middle class families.

GWEN IFILL:  But let’s turn to the audience and see what they think.  We’re going to open this conversation up.  I have a lot more questions, but they do, too.  And we’re going to be right back in just a moment with that.

June 1, 2016; President Barack Obama holds a town hall discussion with the residents of Elkhart, Indiana, hosted by PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill at The Lerner Theatre, in Elkhart, Indiana.(Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

President Barack Obama holds a town hall discussion with the residents of Elkhart, Indiana, hosted by PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill at The Lerner Theatre, in Elkhart, Indiana. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame

GWEN IFILL:  So Mr. President, we are back with a few questions for you from our invited audience here.  They are anxious to get started and so am I.

You’re a small businessman here in Elkhart.

BILL KERCHER, Farmer:  Yes, I am.

GWEN IFILL:  What’s your name?

BILL KERCHER:  Bill Kercher.

GWEN IFILL:  What’s your question for the president?

BILL KERCHER:  Mr. President, I am a fifth-generation fruit and vegetable grower here in Elkhart County.  And over the last six years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of regulations that touch all aspects of our business, from the Food Safety Modernization Act to Obamacare and many others.

Now, large farms are able to comply with these regulations more easily, and small family farms we’ve seen actually exiting the industry.  At what point are we overregulated, if not now?  And how can we encourage younger growers to either stay or enter an industry when the barriers to entry are higher than ever?

Thank you.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, it’s a great question.  And first of all, my administration’s policy has been to encourage family farming, rather than big agribusiness, because not only is that sort of a model of farming that built this country, but as Michelle will tell you, it actually produces food that’s better for you, as she reminds me constantly.

So, you know, we want you to succeed.  Now, if you look at the trend lines in terms of small family farms, the problem generally has been actually farms getting bought up by larger agricultural operations.  It’s been you guys not always getting good prices for the products that you put together.

I don’t doubt that some elements of the regulations I put in place have probably put a burden on you.  So let’s take health care for example.  It may be that previously you weren’t — you didn’t think you were able to provide health insurance for your employees.  The problem is that if they’re not getting health insurance through you, then that means that they’re relying on the emergency room.  And they’re relying on, you know, taxpayers like everybody else to cover those costs if they get in an accident or if they get sick.

And so it has always been our view that if we can put something together where people can buy health insurance through a pool, it’s subsidized if they’re not making enough money to pay for their own health insurance, that that overall is going to be a more efficient way to do it and in fact health care inflation, the rate at which healthcare costs have gone up, for small businesses as well as large businesses, has been significantly slower since I passed the law than it was beforehand.

Now, what I would say is that there are a bunch of regulations that have been put in place in the past that may have been well intentioned, but didn’t work, sometimes they’re outdated.  And so what I’ve told my administration to do is to go back and look at all the regulations that are there.  If there’s not a good reason for them or if they’re outdated or if we can redesign them to put less of a burden on businesses, we should do so.

I’m not interested in regulating just for the sake of regulating, but there are some things like making sure we’ve got clean air and clean water, making sure that folks have health insurance, making sure that worker safety is a priority.  That, I do think, is part of our overall obligation as a — as not a third world country, but as a advanced nation to make sure that we’re doing the right thing.

And I would hope that as a consequence of the overall economy doing better, you’ve also been doing better as well.  And you know, anybody who’s running a business would rather not have any regulations, just as a general rule, and certainly, you don’t want a situation where you feel like you’re being regulated and your competitor is not.  But what we try to do is to be very fair in terms of looking at what regulations make a difference.

If you’re a really small business of like 25 people or less, typically you are exempted from those — a lot of the federal regulations.  If you get to a certain size, then it’s part of the cost of doing business, but what it also does is it makes sure that we, as a society, are looking out for workers, we’re protecting our families and people are getting decent wages and they’ve got health care so they’re not going to the emergency room when they get sick.

GWEN IFILL:  Thank you, Mr. President.  Thank you, Mr. Kercher.

“What we have to do is to make sure that folks are trained for the jobs that are coming in now because some of those jobs of the past are just not going to come back.”

As you may have been — may have noticed, while in this election, Donald Trump came to Indiana and talked a lot about what happened with the Carrier Corporation and shipping the jobs out of state.  Here’s someone who worked for Carrier and he has a question for you.

ERIC COTTONHAM, Carrier Employee:  How are you doing, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  How are you?

ERIC COTTONHAM:  My name is Eric Cottonham and I’m representing the Steelworkers Union, Local 1999.  And I’m trying to find out, what do we have left far us — all of our jobs are leaving Indianapolis. I see here you’re doing a lot of things, but in Indianapolis, there’s nothing there for us.  I mean, what’s next?  I mean, what can we look forward to in the future as far as jobs, employment, whatever?  Because all of our jobs has left or in the process of leaving, sir.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, in fact, we’ve seen more manufacturing jobs created since I’ve been president than anytime since the 1990s.  That’s a fact.  And you know, if you look at just the auto industry as an example, they’ve had record sales and they’ve hired back more people over the last five years than they have for a very long, long time.

We actually make more stuff, have a bigger manufacturing base today than we’ve had in most of our history.  The problems have been — part of the problems have had to do with jobs going overseas and this is one of the reasons why I’ve been trying to negotiate trade deals to raise wages and environmental standards in other countries, so that they’re not undercutting us.

But frankly, part of it has had to do with automation.  You go into an auto factory today that used to have 10,000 people and now they’ve got 1,000 people making the same number of cars or more.  And — so what that means is even though we’re making the same amount of stuff in our manufacturing sector, we’re employing fewer people.

Now, the good news is that there are entire new industries that are starting to pop up and you’re actually seeing some manufacturers coming back to the United States because they’re starting to realize, “You know what?  Energy prices are lower here, workers are better here, this is our biggest market.  And so even though we off-shored and went someplace else before, now it turns out we’re better off going ahead and manufacturing here.”

But for those folks who have lost their job right now because a plant went down the Mexico, that isn’t going to make you feel better.  And so what we have to do is to make sure that folks are trained for the jobs that are coming in now because some of those jobs of the past are just not going to come back, and when somebody says, like the person you just mentioned who I’m not going to advertise for, that he’s going to bring all these jobs back, well how exactly are you going to do that?  What are you going to do?

There’s — there’s no answer to it.  He just says, “Well, I’m going to negotiate a better deal.”  Well, how — what — how exactly are you going to negotiate that?  What magic wand do you have?  And usually, the answer is he doesn’t have an answer.

So what I’ve tried to do, what my administration’s tried to do is let’s grow those manufacturing sectors, like clean energy, like some of these new technologies that are coming up, let’s focus on those.  We’ve set up, for example, manufacturing hubs where we work with universities, local businesses, local governments, to create research labs that can take something like 3-D printing or, you know, nanotechnology — all kinds of stuff that I can’t really explain because, you know, scientists and really smart people know all about it — and said let’s invest in this so that when the new jobs come, they’re coming here.

But I’ve got to tell you that the days when you just being able to — you just being willing to work hard and you can now walk into a plant and suddenly there’s going to be a job for you for 30 years or 40 years, that’s just not going to be there for our kids because more and more, that stuff’s going to be automated.  And if you go into a factory, that kid’s going to need to know computers or is going to need to know some science and some math because they’re not even going to be picking anything up, they’re just going to be working on a keyboard.

And that’s why we put so much emphasis on job training, community colleges, that’s why I’ve proposed making the first two years of community college free so that we know that every young person, they’re going to be able to — if they’re not going for a full four-year degree, at least they’re going to be getting the technical training they need for those jobs in the future.

But you cannot look backwards, and that doesn’t make folks feel good sometimes, especially if it’s a town that was reliant on a couple of big manufacturers.  But they’re going to have to retrain for the jobs of the future, not the jobs of the past.

GWEN IFILL:  Now, you’ve mentioned education, you’ve touched on education and we have a question here about that.  What’s your name?

VANESSA CORREDERA, English Professor:  Vanessa Corredera.

GWEN IFILL:  OK.

VANESSA CORREDERA:  Hi, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  How are you, Vanessa?

VANESSA CORREDERA:  Fine, thank you.  You’ve addressed the crushing student debt, especially for higher education and you’ve cited initiatives with community colleges, the STEM disciplines and technology as potential responses.  Many of my friends and especially my students are still struggling with this issue.

So my question for you is how do you continue to address this issue your final months in office?  And how can you do so in a way that perhaps includes the humanities and liberal arts education as whole when frankly, those are often very much under attack?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  What do you teach?

VANESSA CORREDERA:  I teach English at Andrews University over in Michigan.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  I thought you were a student.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m getting old.  I’m telling you.  All the teachers look like students now.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, first of all, let me just say that I have been emphasizing STEM education — that’s science, technology, engineering and math — not because I think the humanities are unimportant, but because we generally have not been producing as many engineers and as many scientists and people with those kinds of technological skills as compared to China, for example.

And we send a lot of people into banking and folks like me, who become lawyers.  But the truth of the matter is that we have to make sure that we continue to have a strong base in the sciences and engineering if we’re going to remain the most innovative economy in the world.

But as somebody who’s studied humanities himself, you know, I think it’s extremely important, as well.

The broader issue of financing education, as I mentioned, the reason that college is so much more expensive for this generation as it was for my generation and even better for the previous generation really had to do with government spending.  It used to be that most state universities were heavily subsidized by the state, so they kept tuition really, really low.

What happened, around the ’80s and ’90s was state legislators started saying we’ve got to build more prisons.  In fairness to them, they also started feeling more pressure because of Medicaid spending, because health care costs were going up.  And so they started cutting higher education budgets.  And they made up for it with higher tuition.

And that’s why at least at public colleges and universities, the costs have gone up a lot.

Now, here’s what we’ve done.  The first thing I did when I came into office was we reformed the student loan program because what was happening was on federally subsidized student loans, it was all run through the banks.  And the banks were getting billions of dollars of profits for managing these loans to students, even though the loans were guaranteed by the federal government so they weren’t taking any risk.

And we said let’s cut the middleman out, let’s loan directly to students.  So that saved us tends of billions of dollars.  That allowed us to expand the Pell grant program and to lower, or cap interest on student loans.

But just because we did more loans or more grants, that doesn’t always help with the rising costs.  And that’s why I’ve proposed this two-year free college — community college, because what that does is that allows a young person who’s strapped for cash and whose parents, you know, are doing everything they can, but can only do so much, to say I’ll get my first two years for free, I’ll transfer those credits to a four year public college or university and I’ve now just potentially cut the amount of loans that I’ve got in half.

And for some people who decide they don’t need a four-year college education, they want to be a graphic designer, they want to go into a trade, now they can get the training they need without incurring any debt.

So, you know, these are all proposals that are — we know work.  There’s some states and cities that already are doing this to — free community college proposal and it’s working and it’s really helping to reduce costs.

And the last thing, we’re also trying to work with the universities just to figure out ways that they can reduce costs, using, for example, online learning, you know, making, putting out reports so that parents and students are better consumers, so that they know well, let me not sign up for that four-year college where the graduation rates are low and it’s got great dorms and great gyms and nice food, but I’m going to be $50,000 worth of debt and I may not get a job.

GWEN IFILL:  Thank you, Mr. President.

Sir, your name?

ARVIS DAWSON, Community Leader:  Arvis Dawson.

GWEN IFILL:  And your question?

ARVIS DAWSON: First of all, I want to thank you, President, for your service to our country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, sir.

ARVIS DAWSON: And, uh, despite the polls, there’s a lot of love for you here in Elkhart.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Oh, I appreciate that.

You know, I — I actually…

(APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:    — one thing is after seven and a half years, you don’t worry about the polls no more.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You really don’t.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, it’s alright.

ARVIS DAWSON: My question to you, Mr. President, I am a strong believer in equal rights for everyone…

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yes.

ARVIS DAWSON: A very strong believer in that.  I was wondering, though, with all the pressing issues that you have before you right now…

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right.

ARVIS DAWSON: — why is the issue of which bathroom a person uses such an issue?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, I — you know what, it’s — it’s a great question.  Uh, somehow people think I made it an issue.  I didn’t make it an issue.  There — there are a lot of things that are more pressing, you’re absolutely right.

What happened and what continues to happen is you have transgender kids in schools.  And they get bullied.  And they get ostracized.  And it’s tough for them.

“It’s not like I woke up one day and I said, man, you know what we really need to do is let’s start working on high school bathrooms…. One of the things that, as president, you learn is that you don’t choose the issues all the time. The issues come to you.

And, you know, we’re of the generation where that stuff was all out of sight and out of mind and so people — people suffered silently. But now they’re out in the open.  And the question then is, schools are asking us, the Department of Education, for guidance, how should we deal with this?

And my answer is that we should deal with this issue the same way we’d want it dealt with if it was our child.  And that is to try to create an environment of some dignity and kindness for these kids.

And that’s sort of the bottom line.  I have to just say what’s in my heart but I also have to look at, you know, what’s the law?

And my best interpretation of what our laws and our obligations are is that we should try to accommodate these kids so that they are not in a vulnerable situation.

Now, I understand that people, you know, for religious beliefs or just general discomfort might disagree.  And I’m not the one who’s making a big issue of it.

But if it — if the school districts around the country ask me what do you think we should do? Then what we’re going to do is tell them let’s find a way to accommodate them in a way that makes sure that these kids are not, you know, excluded and ostracized.

GWEN IFILL:  Let me ask Mr. Dawson whether he’s satisfied with the answer to that question and what — what is it about this that bothers you?

ARVIS DAWSON: Mainly, it’s my religious belief.  Yes, I’m satisfied with the answer to the question.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  All right.

ARVIS DAWSON: — coming from the church background that I come from, I believe in equal rights for all.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  I know.

ARVIS DAWSON: But I think, too, wherever you were going to the bathroom before, continue to go to the bathroom there.  I don’t — I don’t have a problem with that.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, but, right.  And — and the problem is just for a lot of these kids, they might not even feel comfortable going to the bathroom, which is a tough situation if you’re a kid.  And — and look, I — I have profound respect for everybody’s religious beliefs on this.  But if you’re at a public school, the question is, how do we just make sure that, uh, children are treated with kindness.  That’s all.  And you know, my reading of scripture tells me that that golden rule is pretty high up there in terms of my Christian belief.

That doesn’t mean somebody else has to interpret it the same way.  It does mean as president of the United States, those are the values that I think are important.  Now, this is going to be settled by the courts, ultimately.  There have been lawsuits everywhere.  I just wanted to emphasize to you, though, this — it’s not like I woke up one day and I said, man, you know what we really need to do is let’s start working on high school bathrooms.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, that — I was thinking about ISIL.  And I was…

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  — thinking about, you know, the economy and I’m thinking about jobs.  But one of the things that, as president, you learn is that you don’t choose the issues all the time. The issues come to you.  And then you have to make your best judgment about what you think is right.  And…

GWEN IFILL:  I…

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:    — and I’ve expressed what I think is the best judgment that is consistent with our traditions and our laws.

GWEN IFILL:  I have another issue to come to you here, Mr. President.

What’s your name?

NANCI WIRT, Interior Decorator:  Nanci Wirt.

GWEN IFILL:  And what do you have — your question for the president?

NANCI WIRT:  Mr. President, I, like many Americans, politically, I’m in the center.  I’m not too right, I’m not too left.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Right.

NANCI WIRT: So I spend a lot of time watching the debates.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Right.

NANCI WIRT: Both parties, trying to get a sense of who is my candidate.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Right.

NANCI WIRT:  So I watched a lot this year. And what I came back with at the end was I found that there was a lot of lack of civility.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yes.

NANCI WIRT:  That people were speaking — candidates were speaking over one another, shouting, calling each other names.  There was a lot of inappropriate comments.  I was pretty saddened by the whole situation.

I’m curious what your thoughts are on the tone of the debates overall.

GWEN IFILL:  Were you watching the debates, Mr. President?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, I confess, I didn’t.

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Um, but — but I — but I’m really glad you did.  I don’t watch them because I’m just steeped in this stuff, so I could probably make all the arguments for all the candidates, including, uh, the Republican side, just because I’ve heard them a lot in my day-to-day work.

But I think it’s really important that you took the time to do what every citizen should do, which is try to get informed.

You know, this whole issue of civility is — you’re right to be distressed by it.  Now, I think it’s important not to romanticize what politics used to be like.  You know, if you read accounts of what like Tom Jefferson said about John Adams or what folks said about Lincoln, I mean they called them monkeys, they said they were illegitimate children, they…

(LAUGHTER)

“If you’re civil and quiet and polite, nobody covers you.  But if you say something crazy or rude, you’re all over the news.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  — they said, you know, I mean they’re — there’s some rough stuff.  It wasn’t on TV, because they didn’t have TVs.  But it was rough.

But I do think what has happened is that some of the boundaries that used to be there for how you debated ideas have broken down.  And no offense against Gwen, because she works for PBS, which is all about civility.

GWEN IFILL:  Absolutely.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  But…

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  — but I do think that the TV culture, the reality culture contributes to this, because what happens — and talk radio culture.  What happens is that politicians get the most attention the more outrageous they sound.

And so if you’re civil and quiet and polite, nobody covers you.  But if you say something crazy or rude, you’re all over the news.  And that has fed, I think, this kind of — of arms race of insult and controversy that doesn’t shine a lot of light, even though it generates a lot of heat.

The other thing that contributes to this is, and a lot of times we blame politicians, but part of it is what’s happened in terms of our voting patterns.  And there are a couple of reasons for this.  One is political gerrymandering, which is that the way district lines are drawn are — now they use computers.  They’re so precise that whoever is in power, whether it’s Democrats in a state or Republicans in a state, and both parties do this.

They will draw these lines so precisely that every district they know this is going to be a Republican district; this is going to be a Democratic district.  And so out of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives, maybe 10 percent of them are actually competitive.  And the rest of them, no matter what happens, are going to be either Republican or Democrat.

Well, what happens when that exists?  It means you don’t — if you’re a Republican, you don’t have to worry about what the Democrats are saying.  You don’t have to go to the center.  You just have to make sure that the tea party Republican to your right doesn’t say something more outlandish than you do.  Same thing on the left.  The Democrat is only worried about what the person on the farthest left is going to say.

And that drives people into opposite directions.  So, the one thing I would say is, first of all, don’t get discouraged.  Get out there and vote.  But what I would say is that every voter here, Democrat or Republican, if you want more civility, then you vote for folks who are civil and who are making arguments and using logic and presenting evidence.

And not just somebody who’s popping off.  And that’s true whether it’s on the left or the right.  And if you are voting for somebody who’s just being controversial for the sake of it or helping you vent, then you only have yourself to blame if it turns out that the political debate starts getting more and more crass.

GWEN IFILL:  Since we’re talking politics, Mr. President, I do want to ask you this.  The primary season is almost over.  We’ve talked a lot about what Republicans are and are not doing in this campaign.  I wonder when we can expect you to get involved with the Democratic race?  Are we going to see an endorsement soon?  Bernie Sanders, perhaps?

(LAUGHTER)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, I — the — I think that there’s been a healthy debate in the Democratic Party.  And it’s almost over.  Yeah, we’ve got on Tuesday you’ll have some big states — California and New Jersey, where the votes will take place.  What I’ve tried to do is to make sure that voters, rather than me, big-footing the situation or deciding the outcome.

I think we’ll probably have a pretty good sense next week of who the nominee will end up being.  I think both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are good people.  I think that they broadly share the goals that I have.  There are some tactical differences within the Democratic Party about how do you get stuff done.

But there’s going to be plenty of time for me to step in and campaign.

GWEN IFILL:  I notice you don’t mind using their names.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, as I said, they’re not as good at marketing.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL:  We have another question for you here.

DEAN RINK, Farmer:  Mr. Obama, in regards to Obamacare, I’ve been receiving my health insurance through the marketplace.  And the first year, the subsidy was very high and my premium was very low and I was very happy.

Now, beginning in January of ’16, the subsidy was lower and my premium went up dramatically.  And my income was nearly the same.  In fact, for this year I’m paying 22 percent of my income for health care.  So that’s my concern and my complaint.

The second part of my question is:  What’s going to happen to Obamacare in 2017 and beyond?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Yeah.  Well, I don’t know the particular circumstance.  Your subsidy should not have gone down if your income is more or less the same, unless there was some significant difference in your tax status.  So I’ll try to find out about that.

What is true is that some of the premiums went up because essentially in the first year of a startup program, a lot of insurance companies didn’t quite know how to price things.  And so they priced substantially lower than people expected.

And now things are kind of evening out, which means that some folks who overpriced, they’ve dropped their prices.  Some have gone up.  But on average, what we’re seeing is that the average increase is about four bucks per month for somebody who is signed up.

Some markets are different.  One of the big problems that we’ve had is making sure that there’s enough competition, enough insurers who are bidding for your business in rural communities, because some areas just don’t have as many providers and as many insurance companies.  And so you only get one or two, and they start thinking, well, maybe we can jack up prices a little bit higher.

Now, technically, your state insurance commissioner is able to — has to approve any hikes and those that are not justified economically, those should be stopped.

But what I would say generally is that, and we’re monitoring this very carefully, I promise. Obviously everybody’s been predicting disaster and apocalypse on this thing for a long time — is generally speaking premiums have been lower than people expected originally.  In some markets, they’ve gone up faster; some markets slower.

They’re still cheaper than you would be able to get outside of the marketplace.  But there are some things that we’ve got to do to lower health care costs generally, particularly drug prices.  And part of Obamacare that’s not talked about a lot is us trying to improve the health care delivery system so that there’s not as much waste.

So that you’re not taking multiple tests; so that you’re not readmitted into a hospital because they didn’t take care of business the first time.  And that’s part of the reason why overall health care inflation has actually gone done — has gone up at about half the rate that it did before the law passed.

For the average person here, your premiums are about $2,600 lower than they would have been if health care inflation had kept on going up at the same pace as it did before Obamacare was passed.  Now, the fact that they’re still going up makes you feel bad.  You’d feel worse if they’d gone up faster.

So this is still an issue of challenge to policymakers and to families.  I’m happy, after — after this town hall, to get some details about your situation because if you’re income didn’t go up much, at least the subsidies should not change that much.

GWEN IFILL:  Another question for you over here, Mr. President.

Your name?

GERALD SPARKS, Union Member:  My name is Gerald Sparks.  I’m a member of the Local Level 18 Painters and Allied Trade Union.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Good to see you.

GERALD SPARKS:  Two-part question for you.  First, with over 79,000 Syrian refugees already coming into the states and tens of thousands more coming in, how can you guarantee that there’s none that have been radicalized?  And two, don’t you feel that that money would be better spent taking care of the tens of thousands of homeless veterans we have sleeping on the streets every night, some with children and the ones committing suicide daily?  Thank you, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Well, first, let me say, sir, that we don’t have tens of thousands of Syrian refugees coming in.  We’re trying to get — trying to admit several thousand.  So far, I think, we’ve been able to admit about 2,500.  In contrast, Canada’s taken in 25,000.  We’re a much bigger country.  Germany’s taken in half a million.

There’s a tragedy going on there.  People are homeless and dying and we’re the biggest, wealthiest country on Earth and we have some obligation to help, just like we’d expect people to help if Americans were in trouble.

And so I think it’s really important to understand we’re not spending a lot of money on bringing in and housing refugees, and this is — this is what I mean about making sure when we’re deciding about elections and voting that we look at the facts.  I’m trying to get more refugees admitted.  It’s not close to the kinds of numbers you’re talking about.

We just can’t, and the reason is because refugees are actually admitted on a much stricter standard than the average tourist who’s coming in on a visa.  They have to go through a full background check, FBI, our intelligence agencies, check through every single person who comes in.  It’s like a month-long process.  But if you are somebody from France, you don’t even need a visa, you just hop on a plane and you’re here in the United States.  And if you’re a member of ISIL that happens to be a citizen of France or Germany, you come on in.

Much more risk is involved in terms of just ordinary tourists or, for that matter, American citizens who’ve gotten brainwashed by ISIL on the computer like they did in San Bernardino, and suddenly, they just go to the local gun store where, by the way, because the Republicans have blocked it, we can’t even put them on a list to prevent them from buying weapons.  That’s a much bigger danger than the Syrian refugees.

Now, the second point you made about veterans homelessness, one of the things that I did when I came in office is I said if somebody’s put on a uniform of this country and fought for our freedom, they cannot be homeless, and our goal should be zero homelessness, zero tolerance for homelessness.  And we have cut veterans homelessness since I’ve been in office by about a third.  Tens of thousands of veterans who used to be homeless are now housed.

But one is too many, so we’ve got some cities where they’ve set a goal of zero homeless veterans and they’ve actually achieved it.  We’re going to keep on working as long as we have to to get this done and we have budgeted the dollars to make sure that every veteran is — is put in place.

But I just want to say that the reason that we’ve got veterans’ homelessness is not because of Syrian refugees, it’s not because of undeserved folks on welfare, it’s because we’ve had a Congress that for too long talks tough about patriotism and looking out for our troops and orders folks — are fine with us sending 180,000 people into war, but then when it came down to the actual veterans’ budget, it wasn’t there.

And I increased the veterans’ budget more — the V.A. budget more than any president in history.  I increased it 11 percent my first year.  But we’ve still got work to do on it.

GWEN IFILL:  Mr. President, I’m going to squeeze in another…

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Thank you for the question, though.  Are you a veteran yourself?

GERALD SPARKS:  No, but I support our troops.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  All right. I appreciate you, sir.

GWEN IFILL:  Yes.  Hi.  What’s your name?

MARIANNE NEUFELDT, Homemaker:  Hi. Marianne Neufeldt.

GWEN IFILL:  OK.  What’s your question for the president?

MARIANNE NEUFELDT:  Mr. President, what is the one thing you would go back and change during your presidency?  And how would you change it?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  Other than dying my hair?

(LAUGHTER)

I have to tell you, every day, you know, I make some mistake.  Fortunately, most of them aren’t that big.  Sometimes, you just make — use your best judgment because you’re working with probabilities.  You don’t know the perfect answer.  If something’s easy, it does not reach my desk.  By definition, somebody else has solved it.  If something’s easy to solve, I don’t even see it.  Somebody else has solved it a long time ago.

“I think the thing I would’ve probably done differently is I would’ve tried to describe earlier to the American people how serious the recession was going to be.”

So most of the time, I’m dealing with probabilities.  If I’m making a decision about are we going to take a strike against bin Laden, I don’t even know if bin Laden’s there and I’ve got young men and women — young men who are at risk when I send them there.  I’m operating on probabilities.

When we decided to bail out the auto industry — you were talking about polls earlier.  That polled at about 10 percent even in Michigan because people were, you know, so mad about the bank bailouts, they thought no more bail outs.  And we weren’t positive the thing was going to work, but we knew that if we didn’t do it, you’d lose a million jobs all across the Midwest, including here in Indiana.  So we made that bet and it worked.

If I were to talk about domestic policy, I think the thing I would’ve probably done differently is I would’ve tried to describe earlier to the American people how serious the recession was going to be, which is — which would’ve hopefully allowed us to have an even bigger response than we did.

Our — the Recovery Act, our response to the recession was actually bigger than the New Deal.  We — that’s how a lot of teachers kept their jobs, that’s how a lot of construction workers stayed on the job and projects kept on going.  That’s how a lot of states met their budget.  That’s why we didn’t end up having 30 percent unemployment.

But in the balance of trying to reassure people, I maybe didn’t indicate to them that look, this is probably going to be a two-, three-, four-year process of us digging out of this hole, so that we could have staged some of that recovery money over a longer period of time and possibly accelerated the recovery.

“Every day when I wake up, I’m focused on how can I make your lives better; how can I protect the American people; how can I increase their prosperity.”

In terms of foreign policy, I’ve said this before, we decided to go in as part of a broader coalition into Libya to make sure that this guy Gadhafi, who had been a state sponsor of terrorism, didn’t go in and start slaughtering his own people.  We succeeded and probably saved tens of thousands of lives.

But I was — I did a little too much of counting on other countries to then stabilize and help support government formation.  And now it’s kind of a mess.  I could give you a long list.

(LAUGHTER)

But I — I tell you, I mean, the one thing I can say is every day when I wake up, I’m focused on how can I make your lives better; how can I protect the American people; how can I increase their prosperity.  At the end of the day, I can always say honestly that I did my best.  And hopefully, what I’m also usually trying to do is to admit that if something’s not working as well as it should be, let’s see if we can improve it.

That’s where we need, though, a Congress that is not about yelling and is more about solving problems.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. President, we will prevail on you to come back and give us the rest of that list at another time.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  OK.

GWEN IFILL:  We’re out of time for now.

Thank you very much for joining us.

Thank you very much, the good people of Elkhart, Indiana, for joining us.  We really appreciate it.

We hope you will keep tuning into the PBS NewsHour and at our website at PBS.org/newshour for more on all of the issues and more raised tonight.

From all of us here in the Hoosier State today, thank you to the president and to the people of Elkhart.

Good night.

 

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