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Online Town Hall

Online Town HallPresident Obama today held what the White House says is the first-ever "online town hall" meeting by a president. As we've been reporting, the administration solicited questions at, and the president answered some of them during his live webcast.

You can watch here. We'll be updating this post with highlights. Click your refresh button occasionally to be sure you're seeing our latest additions.

1:05 p.m. ET: The town hall has generated many comments on this post. If you prefer a slightly different type of discussion about how it went, head over to our Forum.

12:51 p.m. ET. Obama concludes with an appeal:

"Thanks for paying attention," the president says as he wraps up, "and we need you guys to keep paying attention in the months and years to come."

According to White House spokesman Nick Shapiro, about 67,000 viewers were watching online as the town hall finished.

12:50 p.m. ET. Last question:

A member of the White House audience asks about the problem of "pre-existing conditions," which prevents some people from getting health insurance.

"Reform of the health care system has to address this issue and say 'we are going to allow anybody to get health insurance,' " Obama says. "And if you can't obtain it through a private plan there's going to be a public plan. ... That's a principle" of any reform.

Town_hall 12:42 p.m. ET: USA TODAY's Rich Wolf reports he's been told by White House spokesman Nick Shapiro that the current online audience for the town hall is about 64,000 viewers.

12:38 p.m. ET. The president continues to take questions from the invited guests at the White House. A teachers asks if members of her profession will be involved in discussions of how to improve the education system:

"Absolutely," says the president. "The teachers are the most important persons in the education system." Without teachers' input and buy-in, he adds, any reforms are "not going to work."

12:35 p.m. ET. Nurses:

Asked by a registered nurse from Maryland if members of her profession will be involved in developing plans for health care reform, Obama assures her they will.

"Frankly, it was the nurses that were there with us," he says about the birth of his daughters and seven-year-old Sasha's bout of meningitis when she was three months old.

"The more that we can deploy nurses as the troops on the front lines" of health care reform, the better, he says.

12:25 p.m. ET. The first question from someone in the audience at the White House: What specific steps do you see your administration taking to help the auto industry?

"I'm going to be making some announcements in the next several days about the auto industry," Obama says. It will be "an extensive answer."

Then he says that "it is appropriate for us to say, are there ways we can provide help for the U.S. auto industry? ... But the price is (they must) finally restructure to deal with (their) long-term problems."

If U.S. automakers aren't willing to make structural changes, Obama says, "then I'm not willing to have taxpayer money chase after bad money" by giving them additional help.

12:17 p.m. ET: Ohio college students ask in a video question about what can be done to reduce the cost of higher education.

The president talks about his administration's efforts to "make the student loan and student grant programs that are already in place work better."

One thing he wants to see done, Obama says, is to eliminate the system where banks act as middle men between government-guaranteed loans and the students who get them. "Let's make all these direct loans," from the government, he says. "That then allows us to lower student loan rates or expand grants" -- making college more affordable.


(Photo by Mandel Ngan of AFP/Getty Images.)

12:13 p.m. ET. Veterans' benefits:

What will he do to make sure members of the military and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan get the help they need?

"They have earned these benefits that all too often we fail to give them," Obama says. In an effort to change that, "we are increasing veterans' funding by more than any time in the last 30 years."

12:10 p.m. ET. A "no" to legalizing marijuana:

Obama notes that one of the most popular questions posed online was "whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation."

"I don't know what that says about the online audience," the president says with chuckle.

"The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."

12:08 p.m. ET: Addressing the health care crisis, the president says that "I don't think the best way to fix our health care system is to scrap what everybody is accustomed to," most importantly a system built on employer-provided insurance. Instead, he says, the nation should "build on what we have ... and fill in the gaps."

12:01 p.m. ET: Continuing to talk about employment, Obama says that "I don't think we've lost all the jobs we're going to lose in this recession."

"Employment is typically a lagging indicator" of the economy's strength, he says, because businesses typically don't start hiring again until after they're sure that demand and other key indicators are on the rise.

The nation's jobless rate stood at 8.1% in February.

11:58 a.m. ET. A video question is shown from a woman who wants to know what the president is doing to keep jobs from going overseas:

Obama_1 "By fixing our education system ... reducing costs of health care ... (and) going after clean energy jobs" to put the economy on a more solid footing, Obama says, the U.S. can increase the number of high-skill, high-wage jobs.

"Our economy, if it's dependent on low-wage, low-skill labor, it's very difficult to hold on to those jobs," he says. "We've got to go after the high-skill jobs."

"The answer to the question is not all of these jobs are going to come back," he says of lower-wage positions.

(Photo by Ron Edmonds of the AP.)

11:53 a.m. ET. What benefits are in his programs "to those of us paying our mortgages, but living paycheck to paycheck," an online questioner has asked.

"There are whole lot of folks out there who aren't going to walk away from their homes ... but are getting killed" by falling home values, Obama says.

His efforts, says the president, have created a climate that has lowered mortgage rates and opened up FHA loans to give more homeowners a chance to refinance.

11:51 a.m. ET. The first question comes from Boston and is on the topic of education. How does the president plan to restore education as a right and a core cultural value?

"Too many of our children aren't getting (the) kind of education" they need, Obama says, for two reasons. "One, in many cases our schools are under-resourced. ... There's a second problem and it's one that money alone cannot solve. ... We have a school system designed for the agricultural era" that gives children three months off in the summer.

"The key thing to understand about our education system is that we need more resources and we need reform," Obama adds.

He stresses the importance of early childhood education, investing in teachers and investing in science. "It's going to take more money and more reform," and "openness to things like charter schools," the president says.

11:43 a.m. ET: The president continues with his opening remarks, which have focused on the steps his administration has taken in an effort to get the economy going again and the $3.6 trillion 2010 budget he's proposing. The message (he appears to be reading it) is very similar to recent speeches he's given and to the opening statement he gave at Tuesday night's prime-time news conference.

11:41 a.m. ET: The president says to those watching online that, "what matters to you is how you're going to find a job ... medical bills ... how you're going to put your child through college."

11:40 a.m. ET: Obama just came into the room. "I am thrilled that all of you here in the White House and everybody who is viewing this online is participating in this experiment we're trying out," he says.

11:38 a.m. ET: Jared Bernstein, Vice President Biden's chief economist, just came to the microphone. He's the emcee today. "Today, the president will focus on the economy," he says.

11:34 a.m. ET: "The program will begin in two minutes," the audience at the White House was just told.

11:32 a.m. ET: Things should be starting shortly.

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