Obama Deflects Question on Legalizing Drugs, Prostitution

Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET.

When President Obama told attendees at his economic town hall today that he only had time to take three questions, he probably did not expect the first question to be about legalizing drugs and prostitution.

He ultimately responded to four questions from the crowd at Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, Penn. but took his time to steer the initial inquiry from a discussion about drugs to the future of the U.S. economy, emphasizing that manufacturing will play a less significant role in the nation. The town hall was part of Mr. Obama's tour of cities around the country in which he will discuss the economy.

"I appreciate the boldness of your question," Mr. Obama said to laughter after a young man asked him if he would consider legalizing drugs, prostitution, gambling or nonviolent crimes. "That will not be my job strategy."

"First of all, part of what you're supposed to do in college is question conventional wisdom," the president continued. "You're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing."

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The rest of the nation, Mr. Obama went on to say, will have to rethink the shape of the nation's economy.

"Manufacturing will never be as high of a percentage [of the economy] as it was in the 1950s," he said, but the capacity for states to cash in on new sectors is "enormous."

He called investments in clean energy technology a "triple win situation."

"We can clean up our environment, we can free ourselves from dependence on foreign oil... and we can put people to work right now," Mr. Obama said. "Those jobs can't be shipped out. Those are jobs that have to be done right here in the United States of America."

He added, as an example, "There's no reason we shouldn't have the corner on wind turbine technology."

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The president also disputed that the ongoing health care debate has distracted his administration from working on rebuilding the economy. Small business owners cannot afford to see health care premiums continue to rise at the current rate, he said.

"We've been working on jobs the whole time," he said. "Health care is part in parcel with where we need to be in the economy."

Mr. Obama also said the government could assist in refurbishing the U.S. economy by increasing exports to regions like Asia and ratcheting up the focus on education to match the educational fervor of productive nations like South Korea.

He also said his administration hopes to pass financial regulation reforms by the beginning of next year and that he hopes to meet with bankers sometime this month on the issue of loosening up credit.

After kicking off the town hall with an unexpected question, Mr. Obama ended with a very personal question: A discharged soldier asked if the president could help him get the benefits he is owed by the Veterans Administration.

"You went straight to the top," Mr. Obama said. "I suspsect somebody will be calling you on your cell phone in about two seconds."

He said the government has a "solemn obligation" to take care of its soldiers and that veterans should be able to apply for benefits online.

Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET after a review of footage clarified the questioner asked about "drugs," not marijuana specifically.

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