Obama sells his stimulus plan in Florida

FORT MYERS, Fla. — President Barack Obama swept through this downtrodden city Tuesday selling the biggest government spending plan in American history _ and himself.

With voters awarding him higher marks than the plan itself, Obama is trying to parlay his popularity outside of Washington into pressure on Capitol Hill. As Congress prepares to work out the kinks in the massive legislation, Obama was joined Tuesday by a rare Republican ally, Gov. Charlie Crist, who also boasts enviable poll numbers.

Obama brandished the charisma that made him a star on the campaign trail at an hourlong town hall-style meeting, taking a playful dig at Miami International Airport, offering encouragement to a restless college student tired of working at McDonald’s, and leaning in to hug a woman who said she was living in her car.

“I believe in hope but I also believe in action,” said Obama, straying slightly from his prepared remarks. “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,” he added.

Many of the 1,500 people at the Harborside Event Center applauded Obama’s quick change from freshly minted president into traveling salesman. He tailored his speech for Florida, saying the economic crisis was apparent when 1,000 people stood in line for 35 firefighting jobs in Miami last Monday. Next stop: Peoria, Ill.

“He talks to my level,” said Ed Woolley, 66, who moved to Fort Myers from Massachusetts to retire but lost his home and went back to work as a security guard. “I really think he’s trying.”

Jamela Thompson, a 38-year-old grocery store owner who brought her young sons to the event, agreed that Obama’s trip would reap good will that he can use to push his agenda.

“For the president to choose Fort Myers, it makes me believe that he really wants to hear what people have to say,” said Thompson, who has moved back in with her parents to save on rent. “We all know we have a long way to go, but this shows he’s on the right track.”

Determined to show he’s not wasting time while the economy sputters, Obama has been making overtures to Republicans and proclaimed Tuesday that he’s open to any ideas, from “a Democrat or a Republican or a vegetarian.”

But besides the governor, the only Republican elected officials who attended the event were Fort Myers Mayor Jim Humphrey, who broke ranks during the campaign and endorsed Obama, and state Rep. Nick Thompson, who said he was personally invited by the White House to attend the event in his hometown.

“I got to see people who live and work here have the opportunity to be able to address the president directly,” Thompson said. “At the same time, I’m worried that my constituents get good value for their tax dollars from this stimulus plan.”

Other Florida Republicans have used blunter language about their concerns. Rep. Connie Mack, who represents Fort Myers, said the plan is “chock-full of spending for pork and special interests.” With Sen. Mel Martinez voting no on Tuesday, every Republican representing Florida in Washington is on the record against it.

Crist, whose keen populist instincts have helped him maintain his appeal in a dire economy, said the plan would be a boon to education, infrastructure and health care.

“This is not about partisan politics,” said Crist, who had been considered a potential running mate for Republican presidential nominee John McCain. “This is about rising above that and helping our country and helping America and reigniting our economy.”

Coming just three months after the election, the build-up to the event felt somewhat like another Obama rally, with tickets snapped up immediately and supporters showing up in campaign garb.

But any hints of hoopla disappeared when Pastor James Bing of Friendship Baptist Church in Fort Myers offered a somber prayer at the start of the event, describing the economic hardships borne by many in the room. The unemployment rate in Fort Myers has tripled over the past two years to 10 percent, and the area’s foreclosure rate led the country last year.

“In 100 ways our hopes are dashed, and we have a hard time coping when hope is all but gone,” Bing said.

A plaintive appeal came when Obama took questions from the audience. A woman who introduced herself as Henrietta Hughes said her family was living in a “small vehicle” while they lingered on a waiting list for public housing.

“We need our own kitchen and our own bathroom,” she implored. “Please help.”

Miami Herald staff writers Evan S. Benn and Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.