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CNN NEWSROOM

President Obama's 'Main Street' Tour

Aired December 4, 2009 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Once again, just a reminder here of what you're looking at. Live picture there of some stage and some people, but they are all waiting -- and it looks like they won't have to wait too much longer.

President of the United States, President Obama, he is at Lehigh Carbon Community College there in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He's on what they're calling a Main Street tour, a Washington to Main Street tour, in which the president is focusing on jobs and out there really listening to people who are quite frankly struggling. He was talking about jobs just yesterday at a jobs summit at the White House and now here for a town hall meeting as such. Do believe he's going to take some questions from the audience at some point.

So let's go ahead and listen in to the president.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you. Please have a seat. Thank you.

It is great to see you all. It's good to be back in Pennsylvania.

(CHEERING)

Good to be back in Allentown, Lehigh Valley.

(CHEERING)

It's a lot of -- a lot of wonderful faces here.

There are a couple of people I want to acknowledge. First of all, the great governor of the great state of Pennsylvania, please give it up for Ed Rendell.

(APPLAUSE & CHEERING)

We've got an outstanding -- an outstanding Congressional delegation that's here. Congresswoman Allison Schwartz is here.

(APPLAUSE)

Congressman Chris Carney is here.

(APPLAUSE)

And Congressman Paul Kanjorski is here.

(APPLAUSE)

We also have Keith McCall, speaker of the Pennsylvania Statehouse.

(APPLAUSE)

We've got Ed Pawlowski, mayor of Allentown...

(APPLAUSE)

... but may be the next member of Congress.

We've got John Callahan, mayor of Bethlehem.

(APPLAUSE)

I just want to clarify here. Ed's not running, John's running. I got those reversed. So, don't vote for Ed, cause he's...

(LAUGHTER)

... I mean, vote for him for mayor.

(LAUGHTER)

John's going to be outstanding.

And Don Cunningham, Lehigh county executive.

(APPLAUSE)

So, it's been about a year and a half since I last visited Allentown and Bethlehem and I was running for office, and while it was a pleasure to be here as a candidate, it's an honor to be here as your president. It really is.

(APPLAUSE)

Pennsylvania helped put me into office, but...

(APPLAUSE)

Thank you.

But even on the most trying days, I want you to know that I'm grateful for the opportunity to serve you in these challenging times for America. And I'm grateful for this chance to get out of Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

And spend a day in the Lehigh Valley talking with people about this very tough economy.

Now, I just came from Allentown Metalworks, where I had a chance to visit with workers there. And they were working hard, not just to forge the heavy machinery that makes this country run. In fact, one of their projects is actually related to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center and the Twin Towers down there, and so you could just tell the extraordinary pride that the workers take in this project. But like so many others across America, these workers have also been doing the best they can to stay afloat in a brutal recession that has hit folks like them hardest of all.

You know, in the two years since this recession began, too many members of our American family have felt the gut punch of a pink slips. Eight million Americans have lost their jobs. Every one of us knows somebody who has been swept up by this storm. Neighbors who have lost their homes or their health care, friends who have used up their savings or put off their retirement, relatives who have downscaled their dreams or dropped them entirely, young people who aren't sure whether they can afford their college educations.

I've heard these stories from every corner of America, and I see them in the letters that I read every single night. So, as we come to the end of this very tough year, I want to do something I haven't had a chance to do that often during my first year in office, and that is to share some modestly encouraging news on our economy.

Today, the Labor Department released its monthly employment survey and reported that the nation lost 11,000 jobs in November, which was about 115,000 fewer than was forecast and is about close to zero from the perspective of our overall economy.

(APPLAUSE)

The unemployment rate ticked down instead of up.

(APPLAUSE)

The report also found that we lost about 160,000 fewer jobs over the last two months than we had previously thought. So, overall, this is the best jobs report that we've seen since 2007.

(APPLAUSE)

And this is good news, just in time for the season of hope. I've got to admit, my chief economist, Christie Roemer, she got about four hugs when she handed us the report.

But I do want to keep this in perspective, we've still got a long way to go. I consider one job lost, one job too many. And as I said...

(APPLAUSE)

As I said yesterday at a jobs conference in Washington, good trends don't pay the rent. We've got to actually grow jobs and get America back to work as quickly as we can.

Now, the journey from here will not be without setbacks or struggles. You know, there may be gyrations in the months ahead. There are going to be some months where the reports are a little better, some months where the reports are worse. But the trend line right now is good. The direction is clear.

When you think about how this year began, even before I was sworn in, and we were losing 700,000 jobs a month -- a month -- today's report is a welcome sign that there are better days ahead. In fact, we were losing more than 700,000 jobs a month, and that's roughly half the size of Philadelphia.

Each month, our financial system was on the verge of collapse. Economists were warning of a second Great Depression. You remember.

(LAUGHTER)

So, from the moment I was sworn into office, I began taking a number of difficult steps to end this economic crisis. And by the way, can I just say, I didn't take these steps because they were popular, or because they were particularly gratifying to me. They weren't.

You can be sure that when I was running for this office, things like saving the banks and rescuing auto companies were not on my to-do list. They weren't even on my want to do list. But I did them because they were necessary to save our country from even greater catastrophe.

We also took steps to unlock our frozen credit markets so average Americans could get the loans that they needed to buy a home or a car, to go to college or start a small business. We enacted measures to stem the crisis in our housing markets, helping responsible homeowners stay in their homes, curbing the decline in home values overall. And we've seen some stabilization in the housing market.

We cut taxes -- think about this because, you know, you wouldn't know it from watching the news. The only tax policy we instituted during the course of this year was to cut taxes for 95 percent of hardworking families, just as I promised I would when I ran for president.

(APPLAUSE)

And we passed the Recovery Act, which created or saved up to 1.6 million jobs, stopped our free-fall, lifted our economy to the point where it's growing for the first time in more than a year. And I was just talking to the governor before we walked in, and he's got a whole series of charts about how much more steel was produced in Pennsylvania because of the Recovery Act, how much more infrastructure spending is taking place out here, putting people to work doing the work that America needs done.

So, today's report is another hopeful sign that these steps that we took, difficult steps that helped turn the tide. But we've got a lot more work to do before we can celebrate, because even though our economy is now growing again, a lot of companies are still hesitant to hire. They're still worried about hiring.

Now, some of this is because they're still trying to get out of the red, brought on by tough times this year. And they're still seeing consumers pull back because people got overextended on their credit cards and those home equity loans suddenly didn't look so attractive. And so people are spending a little bit less, but part of what's happened also among a lot of companies is they figured out how to squeeze more productivity out of the workers that they've got.

They're working people longer hours, they're doing more overtime, or not. But either way, they're producing the same amount of product or providing the same services without hiring more people. And that's something that we're going to have to really work on.

Now, it's typical that it takes time for job growth to catch up with economic growth, and it's typical that it takes a little more time to come out of a recession when it comes to hiring. But Americans who have been desperately looking for work for months, some of them maybe for a year or longer, they can't wait. And we won't wait. We need to do everything we can, right now, to get our businesses hiring again so that our friends and our neighbors can go back to work.

(APPLAUSE)

So, yesterday at the White House we had a forum on jobs and growth with leaders from every sector of our economy and every political and economic viewpoint, from the CEO of Google to small business owners who know our economy as well as anybody. And I wanted to ask them what they needed to start hiring again. And we had a frank discussion about a variety of ideas that helped refine our thinking.

We talked about investments in clean energy to not only create jobs, but to make America a global leader in renewable energy technology.

(APPLAUSE)

We talked about incentives for homeowners for the materials and labor they need to make their homes more energy-efficient and a smart electricity grid that saves you money and moves our economy forward.

We talked about additional ways to lift small businesses, which are both a great generator of jobs and the truest reflection of our values.

We talked about additional investments in America's roads and bridges and railways and ports. Nobody's been a bigger champion of this than Governor Rendell, rebuilding the critical infrastructure of our economy.

So, on Tuesday, I'm going to speak in greater detail about the ideas I'll be sending to Congress to help jump-start private sector hiring and get Americans back to work.

But here's the thing, Allentown. We've got to do more than manage our way through this crisis, because long before the recession hit, many of our communities, including communities right here in Pennsylvania, were struggling even when the economy was doing relatively well.

Plants were closing, jobs were leaving, especially in manufacturing. For too many families and communities, the recession wasn't a new challenge, it's a permanent one. It's been going on for a decade or more.

So, in addition to dealing with the immediate crisis that we face today, we've got to face up to the challenges necessary to strengthen our economy for the long term. And that's why I've taken on our broken health insurance system, so that families and businesses won't have to cope with double-digit premium increases year after year.

(APPLAUSE)

That's why my secretary of education, Arne Duncan, is taking on our education system so that our kids can compete in the 21st century economy. And that's why we are working to upgrade America's most underappreciated asset, community colleges just like this one.

(APPLAUSE)

That's why we're doing everything we can to spur new industries like clean energy to create good, new jobs that won't be sent offshore. And that's why when the current emergency passes, I'm committed to bringing down the deficits that loom as a threat to our future economic growth.

Now, here's why we have to do all this. Because for decades, Washington avoided doing what was right in favor of doing what was easy. And the middle class took a beating for it.

It got papered over because there was a lot of cheap credit out there, so people were just able to keep up by getting more credit cards and taking out more home equity loans, but the long-term trends were not good. That's what was happening decade after decade.

Well, I did not run for president to sweep our messes under the rug with the next election in mind. I ran for president to solve our problems once and for all with the next generation in mind. That's what we're doing right now.

(APPLAUSE)

So, here's the bottom line. I know times are tough. Michelle and I were talking the other day, there are members of our families that are out of work.

You know, we're not that far removed from struggling to pay the bills. Five, six years ago, we were still paying off student loans, still trying to figure out if we pay this bill this month, what do we have to give up next month? We're not that far away from that.

But I promise you this -- I won't rest until things get better.

I know you may not agree with every decision I make. But I promise, I will always tell you the truth about why I'm making these decisions. And I know...

(APPLAUSE)

And I know that we can come together to forge a brighter future so that places like Allentown and Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley don't just survive, but they thrive. That's why we're here. That's what we're fighting for. And as long as I've got the privilege of being your president, I will always be there, right there with you, in the thick of that fight.

So, thank you so much, everybody.

(APPLAUSE)

I appreciate you. Thank you! Thank you very much. Thank you!

Listen, I've got time, I think, for three questions.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.

All right. I'll make you first, just because everybody's very excited about this young man asking a question.

And you can sit down. It will be three questions. Go ahead.

What's your -- well, hold on a second. We've got microphones in there, so -- there you go. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Mr. Obama, I really appreciate how you're trying to stimulate the economy to help this country out, and I was just wondering -- in (INAUDIBLE), in college, we've been studying some criminology. And I was wondering if maybe if you checked out some of the statistics about legalizing prostitution, gambling, drugs and nonviolent crime in order to stimulate some of the economy?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: You know, I have to say this -- well, I appreciate the boldness of your question. That will not be my jobs strategy. But let me say this -- what year are you in school?

QUESTION: This is my second year in college.

OBAMA: Your second year.

I think, first of all, part of what you're supposed to do in college is question conventional wisdom. And so, you're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing, which is, you know, thinking in new ways about things.

Here's -- the truth is that when you look at our economy, in the same way that we used to be an agricultural country and then we moved to an industrial age, and then we went from an industrial economy into an information economy, you know, that transition means that manufacturing will never be as high of a percentage of our economy as it was back in the 1950s. It's not just because we're competing overseas, it's also that a factory that used to require 100 guys to make something, now they can do it with 10 guys because of automation and advances in technology.

So, there's going to be a shift in our economy. But the capacity for a state like Pennsylvania to make enormous progress on advanced manufacturing around infrastructure, on the one hand, and green technology on the other, are still enormous.

I mean, think about it. We've got about $2 trillion -- $2 trillion worth of -- it might even be more than that, Ed. Ed probably knows the statistics.

We've got trillions of dollars of infrastructure improvements that need to be made all across the country -- roads, bridges, ports. And that's just the old infrastructure.

Then we've got a whole new infrastructure that we have to build. So, when we talk about, for example, the smart grid, this is not a complicated concept.

We've got basically an old electricity network that leaks electricity, leaks energy all the time. It's not efficient in the ways that it should be. And if we could create a much more efficient 21st century grid, we could save huge amounts of energy -- 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent, just in making -- just in becoming more efficient. And that would create a whole bunch of jobs for people who would have to lay down lines and put up new transmitters, and all that good stuff.

The same is true when it comes to clean energy. There is no reason why we shouldn't have the corner on wind turbine technology, on solar panel technology. In fact, some companies on -- that are doing battery and wind and solar technology benefited from the Recovery Act, and they are now hiring people right here in Pennsylvania to do that work.

But in order for us to take advantage of this new future, we've got to make some investments now. We've got to have an infrastructure plan.

And something that I've been working with the governor on is the idea of an infrastructure bank, so that instead of us just every six years having Congress to vote what our infrastructure is -- and there's no real planning to it -- that you had a system where you could actually leverage private sector dollars into making investments, alongside the public sector. And it wasn't based on, you know, who has got the committee chairmanship, but it was based on, what our infrastructure needs that we really have in this country and prioritize them.

When it comes to clean energy, this is a triple-win situation. If we invest now in clean energy and we acknowledge that we've got to change how we do business for our economy, for oil independence, but also for climate change, then we can clean up our environment. We can free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil so we're not, you know, waiting to see what somebody in the Middle East is doing before we know what's going to happen to gas prices here in the United States. And we can put people to work right now.

And those jobs can't be shipped out. Those are jobs that have to be done right here in the United States of America.

(APPLAUSE)

So, that's the strategy that we're pursuing.

There's one last component -- two other components I just want to mention.

You know, people -- first of all, I think -- I noticed the press yesterday, because we had this jobs forum at the White House, they said, "Obama's finally pivoting to jobs," as if what we haven't been doing for the whole nine months, from the day I was sworn in and we started talking about the recovery, was all about jobs. But, you know, folks' attention spans are short. I understand that.

What has happened is a lot of the debate in Washington's been around health care, so people think, well, you know, I guess they must not be working on jobs. No, we've been working on jobs the whole time.

Health care is part and parcel with where we need to take our economy. You talk to every small business...

(APPLAUSE)

How many small business owners are here? There may be a few.

You talk to any of the folks who raised their hands, and you ask them what happened to your premiums over the last year, two years, three years? They're not just going up seven percent or eight percent. They're going up 25 percent, 40 percent.

Now, if you're a small businessperson, and let's say you've got five employees, and you are doing the right thing by them, and you're giving them health insurance, and then you find out that what you're paying suddenly doubled over the course of two or three or four years. That's money that is directly out of your pocket that you could have been reinvesting in your business or hiring more workers.

So, us being able to control health care costs and giving small businesses the opportunity to pool with other small businesses and individuals around the country so that they have the same kind of leverage with insurance companies that the big guys have, that's an economic plan. That's part of our jobs growth.

The last point I want to make -- the last point I want to make, and that has to do with education.

You know, I was in Asia for a week, and we were mostly talking about trade and how we can increase U.S. exports. I'm tired of just them sending goods into the United States. I want to start sending goods from the United States out there.

(APPLAUSE)

And I think there are a lot of opportunities for us to increase exports and increase jobs here in the United States without us spending any money. If we increased U.S. exports, our share of exports to Asia by just five percent, we would be creating hundreds of thousands, maybe a million, maybe two million jobs, just by opening up new markets. But I mentioned this yesterday at the jobs summit, and I want to mention it again today.

I was having lunch with the president of South Korea, and that country has gone from dirt poverty and now is just booming. I mean, they are doing really well.

And I asked him, you know, "What's your biggest challenge in terms of education?" He said, "You know, my biggest challenge is the parents are just too demanding." He said, They're in my office. I've had to import foreign teachers, pay for foreign teachers to come teach English to Korean kids, because all the parents there think that their kids should be learning English when they're in first grade."

Now, I tell that story to make the point that these folks are serious. They're not -- you know, their kids aren't spending a whole bunch of time playing video games or watching TV. They're out there -- they're working.

(APPLAUSE)

They're working in math. They're working in science. They're working in foreign languages. They are preparing themselves to compete.

And so, you know, one of the messages I have is that we are going to have to work just as hard. We can't take for granted that somehow, you know, it's just owed to us, that automatically we've got the strongest economy. We've got to make sure that each and every one of us are working as hard as we can and working smart in order to create the jobs of the future.

All right?

OK. I've got time for two more questions.

I think it's got to be a lady's turn.

Right there. Yes.

How are you? Hold on. Get the mike so we can hear you.

Hold on one second. Get the mike so we can hear you.

QUESTION: I'm Susan Kennedy (ph) with the Manufacturers Resource Center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. We are one of the (INAUDIBLE) centers across the country, and I've been working with Joelle (ph) from your office.

OBAMA: Great. QUESTION: I have nine manufacturers here with me. One was located right next to your metalworks that you visited this morning.

OBAMA: Terrific.

QUESTION: And they all want to know, dyingly, what you will do to loosen up the money for the small businesses and how they can compete more with the things they need to grow their businesses.

OBAMA: Now, you're referring specifically to credit and getting loans from...

QUESTION: Credit, yes.

OBAMA: Is that the main priority that you're concerned about?

QUESTION: Credit -- now, I have nine people here.

Anything else you want to add?

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: So, she just kind of...

You know, this is like where they send the attractive person to hitchhike. All right? Then the car stops and suddenly all the other guys come out of the woodwork.

QUESTION: She did hand me the microphone, so I'm going to take this opportunity first...

OBAMA: All right.

QUESTION: ... to thank you for coming to the Lehigh Valley and listening to us here.

OBAMA: Thanks.

(APPLAUSE)

QUESTION: Now, President Obama, I do represent one of the 10 CEOs of manufacturing companies here.

OBAMA: Great.

QUESTION: I'm third generation, 59-year family business. And, by the way, I was in Asia when you were for other reasons. But this -- that's a good segue into what I'd like to discuss.

And that is, I wasn't going to Asia because I wanted to be there. I was going to Asia because I had to be there. You know, manufacturing in this country is changing. Companies need to move and change with it.

OBAMA: Right. QUESTION: Susan's point about the credit markets is really important. The bottom line is that when our companies have an opportunity -- you know, years ago we would take a risk, we would go out, we'd buy the capital equipment. We'd add on to our buildings, we'd hire the necessary people to meet that demand.

Today, our concern is, are the banks going to be there with us?

OBAMA: Right.

QUESTION: And we don't feel they are. What's going to change here in the near future to help your plan and get these people to work? Because we're willing. You know, those businesses are still here. Those families still talk about it. We need the support.

OBAMA: Good.

Well, let me talk about the whole financial sector, because it really relates to what's happening in terms of jobs.

You know, when we came in, and even before we came in, everybody remembers the Lehman's crash and what happened right before the holiday season last year. The banks, the hedge funds, the whole financial system had leveraged itself so much. And leverage means that they took $1 and they turned it into $30, or at least they pretended there was $30 or $40 -- or $60. And they were just going out and lending like crazy, even though they knew that a lot of these loans really made no sense whatsoever.

So, they were lending. Part of what drove the housing boom was it used to be you had to save 20 percent to get money down to get your mortgage. Now, suddenly, people were putting no money down.

It used to be that you'd get a fixed mortgage of 30 years and you'd have a steady payment. Now, suddenly, you only had to pay interest. You didn't have to pay principal. So, that was just in the housing sector, but there were a whole bunch of other sectors of the economy where the same thing was happening.

Now, not only were they giving loans to folks that probably in previous eras wouldn't have qualified for loans, but what was also happening was they were then taking those loans and then selling them. They were packaging them, chopping them up as securities. And those securities, then, would sell for what they weren't worth. They were being certified as Grade A investments when they really weren't.

So, there was just a lot of funny business going on, on Wall Street, and everybody was participating up and down the line because they were all making a lot of money. And, frankly, Washington wasn't doing a very good job regulating.

Now, we saw the consequences of this. Once everybody realized that a lot of this stuff was bogus, that there was no value beneath a lot of these bank loans, suddenly everybody started running for the doors. And you could have had a complete collapse of the financial markets. We stepped in to make sure that you did not have the kind of meltdown that could have definitely got us into a Great Depression. And we did so successfully. And, by the way, the interventions we've made have turned out to be actually cheaper than we had predicted and more effective than we had predicted.

I mean, here's a little bit of interesting news. You know, everybody thinks that this bank bailout was about $700 billion. The truth of the matter is, is that most of the money going to the banks will probably end up being paid back, with interest. And we've already made about, well, several tens of billions of dollars that go right into to pay off deficits because of some of these investments.

So, we've been successful in stabilizing the financial markets.

Here's the problem, though. I just wanted to give you that background. Here's the problem.

Having been way too easy in terms of giving credit, now banks have swung in the opposite direction, and they're not giving any credit to some very creditworthy business. They used to say yes to everything. Now they're just saying no to everything.

And part of our message to the banks is, the taxpayers were there for you to clean up your mistakes. You now have a responsibility to be there for the community now that we're bearing the brunt of a lot of these problems that you caused.

In fairness to some of the banks, what they'll tell you is, well, the regulators are telling us we've got to build up our capital reserves. We still have some bad loans on our books. There's still a commercial real estate problem that's out there that we've got to be on the lookout for. That's why we're not as aggressive lending as we used to be.

So, what we're hoping to do is to work with them and push as hard as we can to say, look, try to get the right balance here. Now, don't swing from one end to the other.

If there's a manufacturer in Pennsylvania, if there's a business in Ohio that is making profits, that has a good idea, that has a customer base, give them a loan, on fair terms. And what we're also saying is, is that the government is willing to step into the breach in some circumstances to help.

So, for example, we've increased our small business lending by about 73 percent through the SBA. That doesn't help everybody that needs help, but it's helping to fill some of the gaps.

But I promise you -- in fact, I hope to be meeting with the bankers again -- I've already met with them a couple of times -- sometime before the end of the year to say to them, look, you have a responsibility now, now that we have pulled you back from the brink, to help make sure that Main Street is actually getting the kinds of loans that it needs. And I'm optimistic that we can start next year seeing credit flowing a little more effectively than it's been so far. All right?

OK. Last question. Last question.

I'm going to go to that guy right there. That guy right there in the blue shirt.

There you go.

No, no, this one right here. Too many blue shirts here. Right here.

I was calling -- I didn't see you back there, so I was calling on him.

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. President.

The gentleman over there, he asked a funny question, so I don't really have anything. I wanted to know if my wife had a question...

OBAMA: Oh, see there?

QUESTION: If not, I'd like to pass it off to this nice woman next to me who really has something to say.

OBAMA: Oh, look at that.

All right. Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Mr. President, thank you for coming to Lehigh Valley and I appreciate you taking up the health care reform. I think it's a very important issue. My question is actually related to what you just ended on, your point, and that is about the investments going on Wall Street. Are you confident that there have been enough safeguards put in place so that we don't run over that cliff again with these irresponsible, risky investments?

OBAMA: No. I mean, here's what happens. Let me say this. Congress works incredibly hard. And you guys have a great congressional delegation. But I think they'll testify to the fact that Congress moves, let's say, deliberately. I mean, it takes -- it takes time to get things done in Congress. And it's -- the Senate in particular, just because the way the rules are constructed.

These days you need 60 votes for everything because of the filibuster, which it used to be was applied rarely, but now the opposition just evokes it for everything. I mean, you can be trying to pass a bill to rename a post office, and they'll say, no, we need 60 votes for that and, you know, we need two weeks of debate.

So, the reason I point all this out is that financial regulatory reform was one of our top priorities at the beginning of the year. We have now gone through a whole series of committees in the House, and the House has passed out its version. But now the Senate has to pass its version. So it's just like the health care bill. It's the same kind of thing. I know sometimes the public thinks, what are these folks doing? Well, part of it is, is that you've got three or four or five different committees all who think that they're in charge of this thing. So they all have hearings. And everybody has to talk. And everybody's got to have their amendments.

And then the bill in one house gets merged. And the bill in the other house gets merged. and, you know, sometimes it gives you a headache just thinking about it, but, look, that's democracy. That's part of what makes our government stable, is, it's not easy to get anything done. But it's also what makes it frustrating when we have emergency situations.

Now, we have put forward a very specific set of financial reforms that involve making sure that if you've got these really big companies, the JPMorgans or the Goldman Sachs, or these companies that have been called too big to fail. Well, you know what, if you're that big, then you'd better have a whole bunch of safeguards so that we don't have to bail you out if you make bad mistakes. And -- and so that's one part of the reform.

Another part of the reform is a consumer watchdog that actually has some teeth. Because everybody here has a story to tell about a credit card company that suddenly jacks up your rates or a loan that had a fine print that you didn't understand and there's a balloon payment someplace. We want to make sure that that regulatory framework is much more effective. We want to set in place mechanisms so that if there is a big bank that is getting into trouble -- or for that matter an insurance company like AIG that's getting into trouble -- that there's a way of essentially quarantining them so that they don't infect the rest of the financial system. So there are a series of different provisions. And if we get this package passed, then we will have the safeguard in place to make sure this stuff doesn't happen again.

But, I want to tell all of you, and anybody who's watching or listening, not surprisingly, a lot of the banks and the financial institutions are fighting this because they want to basically just go back to business as usual. They want to do the same things that they were doing. And you're already starting to see, you know, some of these bonus payments coming out. It's like suddenly they've forgotten that we had to yank them out of the fire.

And so it is very important that we get financial regulatory reform done. We're hoping that we can get it done early at the beginning of next year, but the banks are going to be pushing back. You're going to start seeing ads. In fact, I think they already starting putting out the ads saying, oh, you know, florists and bakeries are suddenly going to be subject to financial regulation. Well, that's not true. That's just not true. But it's the same thing we're dealing with, with health care, the insurance and the drug companies start running millions of dollars worth of ads saying somehow that this is a government takeover of health care, when all we're trying to do to make sure that if you're buying health insurance on the private marketplace, that you're not getting gouged and gypped by the insurance companies.

So -- all right? OK, I'm going to -- I'm going to take one more question from that gentleman back there, because what happened was is that he thought he had been called on and he felt bad and it turned out this guy didn't really have a question. So, go ahead.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, sir. My name is Leonard Martin (ph) and I'm currently a student here at LCCC. I'm also from the Army . . .

OBAMA: From the Army. Where . . .

QUESTION: I'm also discharged from the Army, sir.

OBAMA: Appreciate your service.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Three years. My question, sir, deals with the Veterans Administration. For example, this week I've called them several times asking questions about the GI bill. I'm eligible for the post-9/11 GI bill, but I haven't gotten any benefits from them yet. And when I called them, they're often busy and we get a message saying that we have to call back later on. Sir, could you call them up and ask them -- and get more people to work with them so . . .

OBAMA: All right. Well, first of all, I will -- we will get your name. You know, you went straight to the top here, so I suspect -- I suspect somebody will be calling you on your cell phone in about two seconds.

But -- but, more importantly, you know, one of my commitments as president was, we are going to whip the VA into shape, because when our men and women are serving on behalf of all of us, we've got a solemn obligation to look after them when they come home. And this -- this 9/11 -- post-9/11 GI bill, I think, is a great example of it.

You know, my grandfather fought in World War II, and then he got his college education on the GI bill. It wasn't just good for him. Because of that whole greatest generation going to college, that built our middle class. And all the things that we've been talking about in terms of science and technology and innovation and clean energy, all that depends on what happens in a place like Lehigh, making sure that people are being trained and constantly upgrading their skills for the future. So, that's what the GI bill's supposed to do.

Now, the VA, we've actually increased the budget for the VA by 11 percent last year. Which was the largest increase in 30 years. And we'll be increasing it again this year, because we think it's important to play some catch-up.

Eric Shinseki, who is a great American hero and now the secretary of the VA, one of his tasks is to upgrade a bunch of the old systems in the VA. The truth of the matter is, you shouldn't have to make a phone call. You should be able to get online. That would be more efficient. And what that tells me is -- I mean the fact that you're having to make the call tells me that we have not fully upgraded our information systems yet the way they need to be upgraded. But he is really working diligently. We had a lot of work to do on this front. The VA had been somewhat underfunded for a number of years, despite the growing amount of demand caused by returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. We are, I think, going to get it in a good place by the time I'm through in Washington.

But in the meantime, you'll, I promise, get a return phone call.

Thank you, everybody. God bless you.

HOLMES: The president of the United States, President Obama wrapping up a town hall-style meeting there, I guess, you could call it at Lehigh Carbon Community College there in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. The president starting off his tour, his Washington-to- main street tour, talking about jobs, of course. He had his job summit yesterday at the White House.

And today touting a bit the economic report just came out a couple of hours ago that showed that the unemployment rate in this country has gone down from 10.2 percent to 10 percent. A small decline, but, still, that's something the president wants to talk about. Some good economic news, he even said. And the fact that only 11,000 jobs were lost in the month of November, that is something we are not used to seeing. We've seen job losses in the hundreds of thousands, it seems like, for the past year at least. Hundreds of thousands. Up to 700,000 some (ph) months when the president took office, as he talked about.

But today he had some good news he wanted to pass along. Kind of a strange turn, at some points, during that town hall meeting with a couple of strange question. The first one from some students. A second-year guy who actually asked if the president thought that prostitution and gambling should be legalized. Should be looking at that. And not really a question the president was expecting, but the president handled, then we moved on.

But we will continue to follow the president on his tour. Our Dan Lothian is there. We'll be checking in with him, of course, throughout the day here in the CNN NEWSROOM.

But also the president talking about jobs now. But for so much of the past month or so, the president has been talking about Afghanistan. The president earlier this week came out and said what he wants to do in Afghanistan, which is send 30,000 more U.S. forces to that country. So do you agree with the president's timetable, for one thing, from Afghanistan? We'll see exactly what Americans are saying. Some new poll numbers. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOLMES: Well, allied forces answers the call. NATO secretary- general says member states are promising 7,000 more troops for Afghanistan. It's a show of support for President Obama's new war plan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL: I agree with the president, and I share his wish and his hope. And I'm pleased to inform you that according to our latest figures, at least 20 allies and partners will contribute additional troops to Afghanistan. And I expect more to come in the coming weeks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: Those new NATO troops will augment the 30,000 additional U.S. forces heading to war. It means a combined U.S./NATO troop presence of almost 150,000 in Afghanistan by the end of next year.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the first U.S. deployments start arriving in the Afghan war zone in two to three weeks.

Well, the president's decision and your opinions. We have some new poll numbers just released on President Obama's new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. And with those numbers, our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, joins us now live.

Candy, always good to see you.

So, a lot of people wondered, is the public, at some point, just going to get exhausted with this war if they can't see an end to it. So the president said what he said on Tuesday. Now we have some new numbers. So, do Americans back the president's new move?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It looks as though the president may have done himself some good in that speech, because, you know, most people still oppose the war. But take a look at this number when we asked, do you approve of the president's plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan? Sixty-two percent of Americans say, yes. Only 36 percent oppose. So this was taken -- this poll began the day after the president gave his speech.

I will tell you that also two-thirds of them favor the idea beginning to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, which the president has also promised. However, they don't like the idea that he announced the withdrawal date.

Look at this. A good idea, 39 percent. Fifty-nine percent say it was a bad idea to announce that withdrawal, even though, of course, they say, again, two-thirds of them say that they approve of withdrawing. They just were a little queasy, apparently about the idea of announcing that. So buy into the argument that we heard many make, saying, if you set a withdrawal date, this only encourages the enemy to wait you out. So a lot of people thinking that was a bad idea.

HOLMES: We see interesting numbers within the numbers. And, of course, the president's been juggling a lot of things. Not just Afghanistan. We're talking about health care. We're talking about the economy. So, overall, how do people think the president is handling his job?

CROWLEY: Well, this is interesting, because those are very positive numbers on Afghanistan that we just saw. But take a look at these numbers on overall approval, because, for the first time, CNN is showing the president dropping below the 40 -- the 50 percent mark. Forty-eight percent of Americans now approve of the way the president's handling his job. Just 50 percent -- 50 percent, sorry, disapprove. That's a seven-point drop in less than a month.

So, and when you look at this, I think basically what you're seeing is, if you take the approval of what he's doing in Afghanistan up against this drop in his overall approval rating, what you find is -- and I think what you can surmise -- is that perhaps Americans are looking at the economy, which they still think is in bad shape. Little more proof of that because inside these numbers we asked those among whites who have never attended college, that's our basic definition when we go for blue collar workers, those whose jobs have been most affected by the recession, look at this, 36 percent approve of the president. That's down from 54 percent. So, that's a huge drop. There were drops elsewhere, but this was the biggest drop.

So it says to us, I think if you add all that up, that it's really the economy that is dragging down the president's approval rating below that 50 percent mark.

HOLMES: And one thing real quickly here, what does this mean in perspective for a president? You've seen a lot of presidents and you've seen a lot of polls over time. So when you start getting into that 40 percent number of approval, what's the danger zone for a president here and this president in particular?

CROWLEY: Well, let me give you one more number, and that is three, the number of years the president still has left in his term. Is it a concern for the 2010 elections for Congress? It is. It's a concern for Democrats. For the president, there's a reason that we take polls every month, it's because the American public changes their mind a lot about how they think someone is doing based on the conditions, based on whether they see changes in their life. The economy turns around, they know full well that these numbers go up and down. But it's cautionary at this point. But it's cautionary, I think, most on Capitol Hill, where they are making some pretty tough decisions up there and they are facing elections in less than a year.

HOLMES: All right, Candy Crowley, thank you, as always. We'll see you next month with the new numbers.

All right. Well, you could probably say and assume most kids out there are not necessarily fans of the opera, but one singer is trying to change that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANGELA BROWN, OPERA SINGER: The biggest misconception about opera is that it's only geared towards elitist audiences. Anybody can really enjoy an opera if they choose to.

My mission today is to introduce opera to those who normally don't like opera. Opera is about rich and poor people. It's about brown and black people. It's about yellow and white people. I hope you will learn a little something today and you'll go away from here loving opera, OK, because this is opera as Jean Dixon (ph) almost had it right. It's not a sister's point of view, it's a sistah's point of view. All right, you got to lean back on it!

QUESTION: I think that it's really cool that she's going and telling people that you don't have to be rich to do opera. You can be anyone to do opera.

QUESTION: I think that it was really amazing that she could sing opera like that, because I have never heard opera in that tone and pitch before.

BROWN: The next aria I would like to sing for is you from Tosca (ph). And the heroine's name is Florida Tosca (ph). And . . .

QUESTION: She told us what's happening in the opera.

QUESTION: It's really cool to see all the characters act out the scenes.

BROWN: And I'll be singing the lullaby.

It takes nothing to understand the story and hopefully you'll enjoy the beautiful sounds coming off the stage and be immerse into a fantasy world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TONY HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: "Opera from a Sistah's Point of View" is what we're talking about in our "What Matters" segment. Opera sensation Angela Brown has commanded standing ovations on the world's most famous stages and now she's on a mission to share her love of opera to everyone. She travels to churches, schools and nursing homes to perform her one-woman show "Opera from a Sistah's Point of View." I talked with the soprano about her career, including the night her star was born. Check it out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HARRIS: What was the breakthrough moment for you in your career?

BROWN: Oh, I would say that happened in 2004 when I did my metropolitan opera debut as Aida. Even now I'm still trying to absorb what happened. One moment I was standing outside looking at the marquee and this little couple comes up and they see my name and they go, Angela Brown? Who the hell is Angela Brown? And then the next day I sang. Front page of "The New York Times," they knew who the hell Angela Brown was then. So -- can I say "hell" on CNN?

HARRIS: You just did.

BROWN: Three times.

HARRIS: Yes, you did. For so many people, they're going to get to know you for the first time thanks to our time together, and yet you are one of the leading female voices in opera right now. So where did you come from?

BROWN: Well, I always say that opera chose me. I didn't choose it. Because I never wanted to be that screechy soprano. But it wasn't until I went to Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, and studied with Ginger Beasley (ph) that I found out that I had this voice in me. And that technique just came to me so easy.

Little did he know that Scarfia (ph), who is the policeman in town . . .

HARRIS: Talk to us about your work to make sure that opera becomes more accessible to more people.

BROWN: Well, what you're speaking of is my baby called "Opera from a Sistah's Point of View." Basically it's just the concert that I do that demystifies opera for audiences that normally wouldn't go and see opera. It's a concert that can be geared towards any audience. But when I'm talking with the children, that's what I really like, because they want to know, you know -- they were just like me. I was in their seats one day. And I was saying, you know, I can't understand this music.

HARRIS: Yes.

BROWN: I don't like it. You know, she looks funny. She's loud. A lot of them sit there and put their hands in their ears when I start singing high and -- but it wasn't until I was exposed to it, and certain things that were broken down for me, that I really began to under -- to get an appreciation for opera. So that's all "Opera from a Sistah's Point of View" is.

HARRIS: Miss Angela, give me a little something, something.

BROWN: OK, I've got to give you a little something.

HARRIS: Let me feel a little something.

(Angela Brown singing)

BROWN: Now that was my arrangement, but, you know.

HARRIS: Wow! Wow! Thank you, honey.

BROWN: Thank you! Now I understand you want a little voice lesson. A little something, something?

HARRIS: No, I'm good.

BROWN: You're -- can you sing, Tony?

HARRIS: Of course I can sing.

BROWN: Let me hear a little something. HARRIS: What you want? What you want?

BROWN: Whatever you do in the showers, at church.

HARRIS: (INAUDIBLE) hold on, hold on, I'm starting again.

HARRIS (singing): With the high heels on.

BROWN: OK, we've got to give him a reclear (ph) here for that.

HARRIS: What -- what's wrong? No, that was good.

BROWN: No.

HARRIS: That was tight.

BROWN: OK. Thank you, CNN. God bless.

HARRIS: Thank you very much.

BROWN: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)