First Posted: 12/5/2009
By Andrew M. Seder email@example.com
Times Leader Staff Writer
SCHNECKSVILLE – On the same day the Labor Department reported better-than-anticipated unemployment figures for November, President kicked off his White House to Main Street tour at Lehigh Carbon Community College.
President Barack Obama shakes hands with guests at Lehigh Carbon Community College near Allentown Friday.
Aimee Dilger/The Times Leader
Before the president arrived at Berrier Hall Gymnasium, another prominent figure was drawing a lot of attention. Darryl Dawkins, former NBA great and current basketball coach at Lehigh Carbon Community College, was shaking hands, being interviewed by media outlets and signing autographs.
Obama opened the floor up for questions and probably wishes he didn’t choose the first one. A Lehigh Carbon Community College student asked the president if he had ever considered a program of legalizing drugs, prostitution and other so-called victimless crimes as a way of improving the economy. Laughter from the crowd and the president ensued.
“I appreciate the boldness of your question,” Obama said after the chuckling stopped. “But that will not be my jobs strategy.”
U.S. Rep. Charles Dent, who represents the area Obama was in Friday declined a White House invitation to fly from Washington to Allentown aboard Air Force One. Dent’s opponent in next year’s congressional race Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan was in attendance. Dent, a Republican, may not have made it to the forum but another Republican who has an election on the horizon did. Pat Toomey, who Dent replaced in Congress, is seeking the senate seat held by Arlen Specter next year. He was at the event, as was Gov. Ed Rendell.
Before Obama took the stage, Adam Bowers, a student at Lehigh Carbon Community College and a former Marine led the Pledge of Allegiance and Whitehall High School student Kim Bydlon sang the National Anthem.
U.S. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski drew a small crowd of reporters after Obama’s speech including the Wall Street Journal and a WVPO-AM from Stroudsburg. An unidentified reporter walked by, saw the media attention Kanjorski was getting and stopped and asked a question. When the congressman walked away from the impromptu presser conference, the female reporter asked another reporter “who was that?”
In the first few minutes of his 16-minute speech, he informed the crowd of about 800 of what he called “some encouraging news.”
Though the nation’s unemployment rate eased to 10 percent in November, down slightly from 10.2 percent in October, and the number of workers on payrolls was essentially unchanged last month, the news was viewed as a positive by Obama, but urged cautiousness and patience.
“Overall this is the best jobs report we’ve seen since 2007. This is good news, just in time for the season of hope. We’ve still got a long way to go. I consider one job lost one job too many.”
He said that even before the recession began two years ago many parts of the country including Pennsylvania were seeing job losses and plant closings.
“Every one of us knows somebody swept up in this storm,” Obama said.
Some of those in the audience agreed the job report was good news and they took it as a sign.
“I think we may have capped out at 10.2,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, D-Dimock Township, one of three Pennsylvania congressmen in attendance in Berrier Hall Gymnasium. “It signals we are turning the corner.”
U.S. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, D-Nanticoke, said the unemployment report should “provide a psychological lift’ to a weary public that has struggled to pay bills and find jobs.
Among those who fit that description is Sharon Dickinson of Allentown. The single mother of two was laid off from a carpentry company over a year ago and has struggled to find work. She enrolled at Lehigh Carbon Community College full-time while she’s looking for employment but said her search has been “disheartening.”
“It gets upsetting at times… As much as I don’t want to say I get depressed I do,” she said. “I’ve never in my life had to have been out of work for a year.”
She came wanting to hear the president’s views on jobs and health care, both things she lacks.
“I’m one of those people he talks about,” Dickinson said.
Kanjorski said the president’s decision to take to the Main Streets of America was a bold move and he believed one of his aims is to get some input that he can use to help shape a second stimulus package.
More than 800 people, mostly local business leaders, educators and students, listened to Obama and greeted him with a rousing ovation when he took the stage. On his ride in to Schnecksville along Route 309 north, Obama’s passed dozens of protestors holding signs urging him to end the wars in Iraq and motorcade Afghanistan, ban abortions and to do a better job trying to create jobs.
Businesses along Route 309 also used the chance to speak to Obama through signs. Burger King’s big yellow display sign read “Welcome President Obama. Stimulate Us. Buy a Whopper.”
Before he arrived at the college, Obama visited Allentown Metal Works.
Carney said the president’s visit and the Main Street tour itself sends a necessary message to average Joes. “It’s important that everyday people have a sense that the president understands their plight,” Carney said.
Obama’s choice to kick off his speaking tour at a community college was well-received by Tom Leary, the president of Luzerne County Community College.
Leary was one of 25 people, and three community college presidents, asked to sit on the stage behind Obama.
He clapped after the president said “one of America’s most under appreciated assets are community colleges just like this.”
Kanjorski, who hails from the same city Leary’s college calls home, said it’s his view and the view of others including Obama that community colleges are going to be counted on more and more and people lose jobs and need to be retrained and educated quickly and at a reasonable cost.
Leary said that Luzerne County Community College surpassed the 7,000 threshold for registered students this semester, a sign of just how many people are trying to either better or reinvent themselves or both.
“That increased enrollment is reflective of the fact that in recessionary times there is this opportunity to get an education and get yourself better prepared,” Leary said. He said Obama choosing to talk at a community college in front of predominantly an audience made up of community college students and faculty “is a great recognition for what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Carney called community colleges “one of the backbones of this country” and said he was in favor of a proposal to create a shared community college for Union and Montour counties.
After Obama left the college he went to grab a cheeseburger, but it was the Hamilton Family Diner, not Burger King, that he visited for lunch with Allentown’s mayor and others. Traffic in the Lehigh valley in the vicinity of Route 22 was a mess as police and fire departments blocked access causing side roads to become logjammed.