The Barack Obama Florida Town Hall Moment Showed He Gets the Economic Crisis

At Florida town hall meeting, Obama sees what's at stake thanks to a woman living out of her car.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

He started inelegantly. He made a joke. Barack Obama was in campaign mode and didn't seem to get what Henrietta Hughes was saying.

"What's your name?" he said, with can-do authority, as he started down toward her. But somewhere along the way, in a few steps that may prove to be among the most important of his young presidency, Audacity got it. He saw in Henrietta's eyes what the rest of us were seeing, and heard in her words what the rest of us fear.

"I have an urgent ... need. Unemployment and homelessness," she said. Hughes and her son were sleeping in a pickup truck, using public parks to wash up. The wait for public housing was two years long. "We need our own kitchen, and our own bathroom....Please, help."

The president promised, a bit stiffly, to have his staff get in touch with her. He told her there were many people like her. But then he leaned over and gave Hughes a consoling kiss on her cheek.

There are many good reasons for a president to leave Washington and spend time on the road. The TV crews follow him and convey his scripted message. A trip gets the press corps away from the capital, where Spin is King and reality as contrived as John Boehner's tan. We will all be swimming in blather as the talking heads on cable news dissects the breadth (or limits) of Team Audacity's victory this week. But a journey to the heartland in a time of crisis has a way of reminding even the most cynical among us what is actually at stake.

And that can include a president. As he said during his press conference Monday, Barack Obama would have preferred not to start his term amid the mess of a full-fledged economic meltdown. He is being asked to hold the world together, defeat fanaticism, and blaze a trail toward prosperity—while learning on the job. He will need all his vaunted communication skills and intellect. And he will have to demonstrate he is one of us.

Americans don't need to be coddled. We are a tough, resilient people—even if, once a generation or so, the world (and sometimes we ourselves) mistake our love of liberties, and the dedication with which we pursue happiness, for weakness.

We will ramble on, and get through this. But it's hard when moms and dads come home without a paycheck, to a kitchen table littered with bills, and see the dream of college dying in the eyes of their kids. It hurts when you're living in a car and using public bathrooms. It's cruel when, just as the war in Iraq is winding down, the "won" war in Afghanistan is calling loved ones to another dangerous tour of duty.

What Americans ask of presidents in such times are directions to the road back, the tools to get there and—perhaps most of all—assurance that we're in this together. They want leaders who can form that bond, who can weep, laugh, and bleed a little with them.

Audacity is elegant, cool, and sly. His particular challenge, swamped as he is with crises, briefing books, and dimwit appointees who don't pay their taxes, may be to connect—to form that bond. That's why Henrietta was important. She reminded him what's at stake, and gave him a chance to show the rest of us that he has not forgotten.

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