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At Town Hall, Obama Seeks to Stay on Message

SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. – It's enough to make President Obama long for questions from the White House press corps. Well, almost.

At the end of a speech about the economy and today's drop in the national unemployment rate, the president invited members of his audience at Lehigh Carbon Community College to tell him what's on their mind.

Have you considered legalizing prostitution, gambling and drugs as a way of stimulating the economy, asked a college sophomore?

"I appreciate the boldness of your question," said the president as laughter filled the hall. But he made it clear the suggestion "will not be my jobs strategy." (watch the video at left)

He commended the college kid for questioning conventional wisdom. "You're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing - which is thinking in new ways about things."

There are studies that show legalizing certain vices – and taxing them – would provide economic stimulus and reduce, if not eliminate, government deficits. But don't expect many politicians to get behind the idea.

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Another questioner had a request, not a suggestion.

A recently discharged soldier was having trouble getting through to the Veterans Administration to access his G.I. benefits. Would the president call the V.A. on his behalf?

Cheers and applause for the man who seemed to challenge Mr. Obama on the audacity scoreboard.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
"You went straight to the top," the president told the veteran, "so I suspect somebody will be calling you on your cell phone in about 2 seconds."

Trying to address the larger issue, Mr. Obama renewed his campaign pledge "to whip the V.A. into shape." He said America has a "solemn obligation" to the men and women who served in the military.

And he promised the questioner that he'd get the V.A. to respond to his request for benefits.

"I promise you'll get a phone call."

Mr. Obama had come to this part of Pennsylvania to discuss unemployment on a day the national jobless rate fell 2/10ths of a point to an even 10 percent.

But with over 15 million people still out of work, he was careful not to be too exuberant and called the downturn in joblessness "modestly encouraging news."

He noted that the number of jobs lost by the economy last month totaled just 11,000. "It's about close to zero - from the perspective of our overall economy," he said - though not if you're one of those 11,000.

But it is a far cry from the 741,000 jobs lost last January, the month he was inaugurated. "So overall," said the president, "this is the best jobs report we've seen since 2007."

The visit here came a day after the forum on jobs and economic growth that he convened at the White House. Mr. Obama plans a speech on Tuesday about the ideas put forward at the forum that might help promote job creation nationally.

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(CBS)
Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/markknoller.
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