Albuquerque, NM – President Barack Obama made a swing through Albuquerque's South Valley on Tuesday. He answered some questions from community members and criticized Congressional Republicans for blocking legislation he said is essential to helping the country out of tough economic times. KUNM's Jim Williams reports.
Williams: The first thing you hear when driving into the open meadow that functions as a parking lot here is, "watch your step in the field". And for good reason. This is a farm that borders Andy and Etta Cavalier's property off Norment Place in the South Valley. The Cavaliers offered their front yard to the president for an hour Tuesday morning.
Nats: ["Hello everybody", and applause]
Williams: About thirty people, all of whom had been invited by the Cavaliers, sat in lawn chairs in the grass. Obama introduced Governor Bill Richardson and Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish, who sat off to the side, squinting a bit into the bright, a little-too-hot sunshine.
Obama: We've got Congressman Martin Heinrich, and I will say that Martin told me that if I was gonna come to Albuquerque, that I'd better visit the South Valley the next time I come, so he gets some credit for bringing me here today.
Williams: Obama joked that these events help get him out of the house.
Obama: It's a very nice house that they provide for me in Washington. But at times you do feel like you're in a bubble.
Williams: One of the goals of the visit was to connect with people on what the administration is doing to stimulate the economy and spur job growth. But Obama also wanted to remind those listening that the economic problems started well before he took office.
Obama: From 2001 to 2009, during that eight-year period, wages, average wages for a middle class family actually fell by five percent. Think about that. People's real incomes were actually falling and this was at a time before the crisis. So supposedly the economy was growing and things were going pretty well. In fact, people's incomes were falling.
Williams: Job growth was also sluggish during that time, he said. Obama said it was all an indication that there were problems that weren't being dealt with. The small business loans and tax credits bill he signed Monday, he said, is one step toward reversing that. But Obama said another ongoing problem in the US is the education system, because the workforce is a product of it.
Obama: We were the first nation in the world to have compulsory public education. And we had the best universities in the world, and the best colleges in the world, and we ranked number one in the proportion of college graduates in the world. We now rank 12th. And that's just happened in a generation. We went from number one to number twelve in the number of college graduates that we have.
Williams: Obama touted his administration's "Race to the Top" program for providing extra money to states that can show they have innovative programs to improve their schools. He said 32 states have reformed their education laws in response.
Obama: Moving forward on a reform agenda that doesn't just dictate to states, you know, here's how you have to do everything, but it says "here's some criteria for success...if you have a plan to match that, then we're gonna help you."
Williams: But most of Obama's time Tuesday was spent listening and responding to comments and questions. Katerina Sano-Antonini grew up in the South Valley and is now working in the community's schools.
Antonini: And I have seen over the years, first-hand, how recent immigrants have revitalized our local economy. They start small businesses, they hire locally, they live within the community. How do you envision a comprehensive immigration reform as one measure towards America's economic recovery and long-term vitality.
Williams: Obama responded that the U-S is a nation of immigrants, and also a nation of laws, and he believes both can work together in a way that a majority can accept. But his frustration on this issue underlines a broader problem: as many Democrats have noted, Congressional Republicans are looking to defeat him.
Obama: If you don't have sixty votes, you can't get anything through the United States Senate right now, and several years ago we had eleven Republican senators who were willing to vote for comprehensive immigration reform, including John McCain. They've all reversed themselves, I can't get any of them to cooperate, and I don't have sixty Democrats in the Senate. My hope is that the Republicans who have said no and, you know, have seen their party, I think, use some unfortunate rhetoric around this issue, my hope is that they come back and say, you know, this is something that we can work on together to solve a problem instead of trying to score political points.
Williams: David Pacheco, who works for the New Mexico Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, had a question about the Obama Administration's response to the housing crisis.
Pacheco: I think as an integral part of being Hispanic, being from here, home is very integral to that. And yet I hear stories of my family members, friends, veterans that I treat, of losing their homes due to this economy that we've been through, or are going through. And I guess my question is what are we doing to prevent people from losing their homes?
Williams: The president responded that, in an overbuilt market, banks took advantage of homebuyers who essentially didn't read the fine print.
Obama: There's no government program where we can just make sure that whoever's losing their home that we can just pick up the tab and make sure that they can pay, and frankly there's some people who really bought more home than they could afford. And they'd be better off renting or they're gonna have to make adjustments in terms of their house.
Williams: Obama added, though, that for homeowners who have been able to keep up with their payments but are struggling, the government has been working with banks to reduce principal or interest on those payments.
Obama: But I don't wanna lie to you. You know, we've probably had hundreds of thousands of people who've been helped by it. I think there've been a couple of million who've applied. But that doesn't meet the entire need because this is such a huge housing market.
Williams: Obama said getting the economy growing again will help reverse much of the rest of the housing problem. After the event, Pacheco said many of the people he's heard from have tried to go through the mortgage restructuring program, with no success.
Pacheco: One in particular is a family member that has three children under the age of five, lost his job, one child is blind, so he has a lot of other responsibilities that other people typically wouldn't have yet they had to move out of their home and go into an apartment. And they're barely making it. So I feel that some of what I heard is what I've already heard before. I still don't think it addresses the true issue. I do support what he is doing, unfortunately I think the problem is much bigger than one individual can handle.
Williams: And that goes back to cooperation in Washington, which these days is scarce.
Lisa Murphy agreed with Obama that partisanship is the problem.
Murphy: You have Republicans and you have Democrats, and they're so focused on tug-of-war that really important laws and bills don't get passed because of their pride. And that's what it looks to the outsider. And this is where we're putting our tax dollars, in prideful government that will not come to the table and maybe go outside of their, I would call "clique", Republican and Democrat, and stand up for what's right.
Williams: President Obama will continue his travels around the country in coming weeks as he works to beef up both awareness of the work his administration has done, and support for Democratic candidates in tough races. For KUNM, I'm Jim Williams.