By Dan Froomkin
9:48 AM ET, 02/ 9/2009
President Obama heads into the belly of the beast today, leaving Washington for a depressed city in Northern Indiana with the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
Obama's first press conference as president is tonight at 8 p.m. ET, but the town-hall meeting in an Elkhart high school gymnasium at noon may be an even better gauge of how his stimulus package is playing with ordinary Americans. He'll take questions from local residents who lined up for hours Saturday morning to get tickets.
Mimi Hall writes for USA Today: "Layoffs are happening across the USA — but nowhere as fast as in this once-thriving area that used to be known as the 'RV Capital of the World.' One year ago, unemployment in Elkhart County was at 4.7%. Today, it's the highest in the nation at 15.3%, fueled largely by the rapid decline in the recreational vehicle business...
"This area did not vote for Obama in November, but The Elkhart Truth newspaper is on board with that message now. 'President Obama needs to help Congress understand that the stimulus package isn't about politics. It's about survival,' the newspaper said in a Sunday editorial....
"Obama's likely to get an earful from frightened residents who have seen property values plummet and foreclosure rates rise. Area church congregations are taking up donations for unemployed parishioners, and local TV stations are running ads telling people how to get to food banks."
Hall writes that Obama is being introduced by "Ed Neufeldt, a father of seven who lost his $20-an-hour job in September. He had been building RVs at Monaco Coach for 32 years when his boss came out of a meeting in tears and announced that the company was closing its plant, putting 1,400 out of work.
"Neufeldt, 62, has two children living at home, and two of his grown daughters and their husbands — all four also RV industry workers — are out of work as well....
"He didn't vote for Obama, but he's backing him now. In fact, Neufeldt will introduce the president at Monday's town-hall-style meeting. 'Sometimes you don't care too much for the coach,' he says, 'but you're praying for him to win.'"
In a dramatic contrast to former President Bush's town-hall meetings -- which were held almost exclusively in party strongholds, with tickets distributed primarily to supporters -- it was first-come, first-served in Elkhart on Saturday. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explained on Friday: "I've watched the President do town halls from 2004 through 2008, and the audience has never been hand-picked, and neither have the questions. And we're not going to start any of that on Monday."
Jodi Magallanes writes for the Elkhart Truth that "thousands of area residents... lined up outside McCuen Gym at Concord High School beginning late Friday to get tickets... Many wanted to know what the president was going to do to bring back jobs and spark a correction in the financial sector of the economy....
"Julie Moore of Goshen arrived at 7 a.m. and wound up close to the front of the line. She wanted the opportunity to hear from the president that he'd be able to save the jobs that still exist in the county that's experienced the largest jump in the local unemployment rate during the last year.
"'We feel more affected by this now than when he was here the last time,' Moore said.
"Since Obama's previous visit to Concord in August, her husband has lost his job."
Jake Tapper writes for ABC News that Elkhart County is "a Republican bastion that Obama lost 44 percent to 56 percent last November, despite his impressive feat of winning the Hoosier State."
Obama is even inviting critics onto Air Force One, Tapper writes: "Two opponents of the bill will also be on board: Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind., one of just 11 House Democrats to oppose it; and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., a close friend of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who voted against the bill but has been working with the White House on adding a business tax cut provision."
Expect more of the same tomorrow, when Obama continues his road show with a trip to Fort Myers, Fla. Beth Reinhard writes in the Miami Herald: "Obama chose a part of Florida that could be a tough sell. Republican John McCain won Lee County by an 11-point margin.
"The local congressman, Republican Connie Mack, voted against the economic recovery plan."