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Obama Town Hall: Time for Companies to Step Up

President Obama conducted a town hall on The Early Show this morning, dedicated to the economy. I was lucky enough to participate in the event, co-hosting the online "after-party" with John Dickerson of CBS News. (See John's political perspective on the Town Hall here.)

The president covered what you would expect: gas prices; unemployment; housing; the nation's debt and deficit; and for good measure, he did a little cheer leading for the American Dream.

Before turning to questions, Obama reminded the audience that the US economy is in better shape than it was when he first entered office. After the trillions of dollars of taxpayer money spent, I certainly would hope so! But there was also a recognition that many Americans aren't feeling enough of the progress, because the recovery has been "uneven".

During his response to the first question about gas prices, the president noted that US oil production is up since 2003, which most of the audience didn't seem to know. But then he brought up the investigation into speculation/price gauging, which has always seemed silly. As I explained in the web-extra, the easiest way to control speculation is for exchanges to raise margin requirements, which the CME Group has already done. In fact, crude oil dropped $5.67 a barrel yesterday to $98.21 and I remain hopeful that gas prices will drop accordingly.

On the issue of unemployment, the president was confronted with a question from Karin, a pregnant government worker who had recently lost what she thought was a secure job. Unfortunately for Karin, local, state and federal government budget cut-backs have translated into job losses--24,000 in April and over 400,000 since September 2008.

President Obama didn't dwell on the rotten government employment numbers and instead went on the offensive, saying, "It's time for companies to step up!" This reminded me of the time he called he coined the phrase "fat cat bankers" on 60 Minutes in 2009. While these statements make for great soundbites/headlines, the president can only blame himself and his patsy economic advisors, all of whom had plenty of opportunities to extract whatever they wanted from bankers and big companies, in exchange for bailing them out. I still can't believe that at the very moment when both Presidents Bush and Obama had the maximum amount of leverage, they squandered it. The recourse today is name-calling and empty demands.

The housing question led to Obama claiming success for the country's HAMP program, which by most accounts, has been an abysmal failure. Just read my colleague Ilyce Glink's series "Loan Modification Hell" to learn just how bad it's been!

When the discussion turned to the national debt, the deficit and the debt ceiling, Obama lost the audience. There were just too many big numbers and too little real-life relevance, as we learned during our web-cast. We also heard from some critics in room, who scolded Obama for not mentioning the nation's swelling ranks of poor and one soon-to-be college grad brought up the high unemployment rate among his peers.

What was so impressive about the event was that attendees were respectful of one another and the President, regardless of political affiliation. Thanks to everyone who participated in the CBS Early Show Town Hall and to all of the amazing people at CBS News and at the Newseum, who made us look good!

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