An audience of 1,500 people greeted President Barack Obama with a sea of lofted cell phones and cameras Tuesday as he entered the Harborside Event Center in Fort Myers, clamoring to capture a piece of local history.
Obama delivered a 20-minute speech emphasizing the need for a more than $800 billion economic stimulus package and how it will affect Southwest Florida residents, before taking questions from the audience.
"We cannot afford to wait. I believe in hope, but I also believe in action," Obama told the crowd.
"We can't afford to posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place," he added, prodding recalcitrant Republicans to support the stimulus package.
Republican Gov. Charlie Crist embraced the bipartisan spirit advocated by Obama, and stressed how the stimulus could help Florida balance its budget and jump start infrastructure projects.
"We need to do this (pass the stimulus package) in a bipartisan way. Helping the country should be about helping the country, not partisan politics," Crist said before introducing the president.
Text of President Obama's speech
"I want to start by thanking your governor, Charlie Crist, for joining us today. Governors understand our economic crisis as well as anyone; they're on the front lines dealing with it every day. And Governor Crist shares my conviction that creating jobs and turning this economy around is a mission that transcends party. When the town is burning, we don't check party labels. Everyone needs to grab a hose.
"Governor Crist and governors across the country understand that. Mayors across the country understand that. And I think you understand that, too. Which is what I want to talk about today.
"Last night, I addressed the nation to explain why I believe we need to put the economic recovery plan that is before Congress in motion as soon as possible. But during the day, I spent some time out in Indiana talking to folks. And today, I wanted to come to Florida and visit you all in Fort Myers.
"You see, too often the debate in Washington tends to take the measure of our challenges in numbers and statistics. But when we say we've lost 3.6 million jobs since this recession began - nearly 600,000 in the past month alone; when we say that Lee County has seen its unemployment rate go from 3.5 percent to nearly 10 percent in less than two years; when we talk about the plummeting home prices and soaring foreclosure rates that have plagued this area, and layoffs at companies like Kraft Construction and Chico's - companies that have sustained this community for years - well, we're not just talking about faceless numbers. We're talking about families you probably know.
"We're talking about people like Steve Adkins, who has joined us today with his wife Michelle, and their son Bailey and daughter Josie. Steve's the president of a small construction company in Fort Myers that specializes in building and repairing schools, but work has slowed considerably. He's done what he can to reduce overhead costs, but he's still been forced to lay off half his workforce. And he and Michelle have made sacrifices of their own - they sold their home and moved into a smaller one.
"That is what this debate is about. Folks in Fort Myers and all across the country who have lost their livelihood and don't know what will take its place. Parents who've lost their health care and lie awake at night praying their kids don't get sick. Families who've lost the home that was the foundation of their American dream. Young people who put that college acceptance letter back in the envelope because they just can't afford it.
"That's what those numbers and statistics mean. That is the true measure of this economic crisis. Those are the stories I heard every time I came here to Florida and that I have carried with me to the White House.
"I promised you back then that if elected President, I would do everything I could to help our communities recover. That's why I've come back today - to tell you how I intend to keep that promise.
"The situation we face could not be more serious. We have inherited an economic crisis as deep and as dire as any since the Great Depression. Economists from across the spectrum have warned that if we don't act immediately, millions more jobs will disappear, and national unemployment rates will approach double digits. More people will lose their homes and their health care. And our nation will sink into a crisis that, at some point, will be much tougher to reverse.
"So we simply can't afford to wait and see and hope for the best. We can't afford to posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place. After all, that's what this election was about. You rejected those ideas because you know they haven't worked. You didn't send us to Washington because you were hoping for more of the same, you sent us there to change things, and that is exactly what I intend to do as President of the United States.
"Now, the problems that led us into this crisis are deep, and they are widespread. We need to stabilize and repair our financial system. We need to get credit flowing again to families and businesses. We need to stem the spread of foreclosures that are sweeping this country. My Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, outlined a plan to address these challenges this morning.
"We know that in order to address our economic crisis, we must address our foreclosure crisis. I know Fort Myers had the highest foreclosure rate in the nation last year. I know entire neighborhoods are studded with foreclosure signs, and families across this city feel like they're losing their foothold in the American Dream. So we are going to do everything we can to help responsible homeowners here in Fort Myers and other hard-hit communities stay in their homes.
"If we want to fully turn this crisis around, the starting point is to get people back to work right now.
"Last week, we saw 1,000 men and women stand in line for only 35 Miami firefighter jobs. It's a story repeated across the country - there's so much demand for jobs that just aren't there. That is both the paradox and the promise of this moment: at a time when so many Americans are looking for work, there is so much work America needs done.
"That is why I put forth a recovery and reinvestment plan, and that is the simple idea at its core. It's a plan that will save or create up to four million jobs over the next two years, ignite spending by business and consumers alike, and make the investments necessary for lasting economic growth and prosperity.
"We'll begin by ensuring that Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own can receive greater unemployment benefits and continue their health care coverage. That means an additional $100 per month to more than 760,000 Florida workers who have lost their jobs in this recession, and extended unemployment benefits for another 170,000 folks who've been laid off and can't find work.
"That is not only our moral responsibility - to lend a helping hand to our fellow Americans in times of emergency - but it also makes good economic sense. If you don't have money, you can't spend it. And if you don't spend it, our economy will continue to decline.
"For that same reason, the plan includes $1,000 of badly-needed tax relief for middle class workers and families, putting money back in the pockets of nearly 6.9 million workers and their families here in Florida. And we'll also provide a partially refundable $2,500 per-student tax credit to help 195,000 Florida families send their kids to college, relieving your household budgets in the short run, and rewarding America in the long run.
"Most importantly, this plan will put people to work right now by making direct investments in areas like health care, energy, education, and infrastructure; investments that save jobs, create new jobs and new businesses, and help our economy grow again.
"More than 90 percent of the jobs created by this plan will be in the private sector - 90 percent. And they won't be make-work jobs; they'll be jobs that lay the groundwork for our lasting economic growth - jobs that put people to work today preparing America for tomorrow.
"Jobs building wind turbines and solar panels and fuel efficient cars; doubling our investment in clean energy, and helping end our dependence on foreign oil.
"Jobs upgrading our schools, creating 21st century classrooms, libraries, and labs for millions of children across America.
"Jobs computerizing our health care system, saving billions of dollars and countless lives.
"Jobs constructing broadband internet lines that reach Florida's rural schools and small businesses, so they can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.
"Jobs rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, and repairing our dangerously deficient dams and levees so we don't face another Katrina.
"And the jobs of firefighters, teachers, nurses, and police officers that would otherwise be eliminated if we don't provide states with some relief.
"Of course, there are critics who say we can't afford to take on these priorities. But we have postponed and neglected them for too long. And because we have, our health care still costs too much. Our schools still fail our children. Our dependence on foreign oil still threatens our economy and our security. And we've seen the tragic consequences when our bridges crumble and our levees fail.
"They say we can't afford to take on these tasks. But Florida, you know we can't afford not to.
"Now, I'm not going to tell you that this plan is perfect. No plan is. I also can't tell you with one hundred percent certainty that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope. But I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act in the face of this crisis will bring only deepening disaster. Doing nothing is not an option.
"We've had a good debate, but the time for talking is over. Folks here in Fort Myers and across America need help, and the time for action is now. The Americans I've met understand that even with this plan, our recovery will likely be measured in years, not weeks or months - but what they don't have patience for is more waiting on folks in Washington to get this done.
"I know people are struggling. But I also know that folks here are good workers and good neighbors who step up, who help each other out, who make sacrifices when times are tough. I know that all folks are asking for is a chance to work hard - and to have that work translate into a decent life for you and your family. You're doing your part down here - and it's time the government did its part too.
"This is a responsibility we did not ask for. But it is one we must accept for the sake of our future and our children's. And being here in Fort Myers with all of you, I am more confident than ever before that we can and will set our differences aside, commit ourselves to the work ahead, and come together to meet the great test of our time.
"Thank you. And now I'd like to open this up for questions and hear from you."
Source: Office of the White House press secretary
In a moment of serendipity, Obama announced to the crowd that the Senate passed its $838 billion version of the stimulus plan. The news was met with raucous applause and chants of "Yes we can" by the audience.
"That's great news," Obama said.
"You know why it passed? They knew I was coming down to Fort Myers. They said, 'We don't want Fort Myers mad at us,'" he added.
However, the president's pleas for bipartisanship were not reflected in the Senate vote, which came down 61-37, with all but three Republicans voting against the bill.
The Senate version now must be reconciled with the $820 House version passed in January, before being submitted for Obama's signature. The president has asked Congress to have the stimulus legislation on his desk by Monday.
One person relieved by the news was Lehigh Acres resident Antoinette Johnson, who said before Obama's speech that she is looking for the government to come together to pass the stimulus legislation.
Johnson also wanted to hear about the stimulus package's affect on jobs and education.
"(Obama's) daughters are the same age as my sons, and I want to make sure that when they graduate from college, they have jobs available to them here and are not being shipped overseas," she said.
The president did address the issue of job creation in his speech.
"More than 90 percent of the jobs created by this plan will be in the private sector - 90 percent - and they won't be make-work jobs. They'll be jobs that lay the groundwork for our lasting economic growth, jobs that put people to work today preparing America for tomorrow," he said.
Obama's visit was his second stop in as many days to an area hit hard by the economic crisis. Obama stumped for the stimulus plan Monday in Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate has risen from 4.7 percent to 13.3 percent in the past year.
Obama said he is familiar with the economic troubles in Southwest Florida.
The Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area's foreclosure rate led the nation in 2008, and Lee County's unemployment rate rose to more than 10 percent in the past year.
"This isn't new. When we were campaigning down here we heard about the first recession in Florida for 16 years. It's gotten worse, and all the stories I hear here and in Indiana, I take back to the White House," Obama said.
Southwest Florida resident Adam Palmer was among the first to ask Obama a question. He inquired how the stimulus package would address the lack of willingness among banks to rework mortgages that are in trouble but not yet in default.
"The question is, can we work to develop ways to make the banks understand it's in their best interest to rework those loans?" Obama said.
He added that the problem is compounded because mortgages are not owned by a single entity anymore, but have been bundled up and sold in "slices," making it harder to adjust a mortgage.
More specific housing policies will be released in the coming weeks, Obama said.
"We didn't want to overshadow the importance of the stimulus by announcing our housing plan. I'm going to be making an announcement in the next couple of weeks about our overall plan," he said.
The last person to question Obama, Edison State College sophomore Julio Osegueda, asked about help for people who have a job but are struggling with the lack of more ideal available opportunities.
"I've been at the same job, which is McDonald's, for four years because I can't find another job. What is the plan going to do to give extra benefits for those people?" Osegueda asked.
"You'll actually see some of the benefit from the tax breaks. We want to make it easier for you to go to college," Obama responded, referring to a $2,500 tax credit for college students included in the stimulus plan.
Osegueda asked his question with such enthusiasm and exuberance that he garnered the attention of local and national media in two languages after Obama's speech. He was interviewed by one local television news station and four Spanish-language news stations, and also was asked to be on the CBS morning program "The Early Show."
Osegueda said his life was transformed by Obama's answer.
"I feel like the old version of me just dropped to the floor and success is near for me," he said.
While some Obama supporters, like Osegueda, were overjoyed at the stimulus legislation passing the Senate hurdle, others were more reticent about the plan's prospects for success.
"I don't know how good it's going to be or how quickly it's going to work," said Fort Myers resident Frank Mesich.
He added that the stimulus plan is a good idea, and he was inspired by Obama's appearance.
"I feel hope," Mesich said.