Posted Online: Feb. 22, 2005, 11:00 pm

Obama fields questions from packed Augie hall

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By Kurt Allemeier, kallemeier@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Terry Herbig
Senator Barack Obama, D-Illinois, answers questions during a town meeting held in Wallenberg Hall at Augustana College, Wednesday morning.

Beg your pardon -- 2-25-05

* A report Thursday of Sen. Barack Obama's visit to Augustana College incorrectly mentioned the condition of the Peace Corps budget. The Peace Corps budget is $317 million, with an increase of $28 million planned for the fiscal 2006 budget. We regret the reporter's error.

ROCK ISLAND - An Augustana College student thrust his hand at Illinois' junior senator Wednesday, telling him he was the first person he ever voted for.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shook the young man's hand and accepted his voter confirmation slip, saved from November.

The earnest student was just one of many who swarmed and hovered near Sen. Obama following a town hall meeting with a standing-room-only audience at Augustana's Wallenberg Hall.

With near-rock star vibe, easy quips and straight talk, the senator fielded questions from the mostly younger audience for about an hour. Topics ranged from Social Security to the Sudan, from Iraq to education funding.

He closed by recommending to the college students that they learn so they can compete in a global economy. He called adapting education to fit a world economy his biggest priority as senator.

"Everybody here has to be sufficiently educated, adaptable, and hungry and intuitive for knowledge that they ensure themselves lifetime employability even if they can't ensure themselves lifetime employment," Sen. Obama said. "What we should be doing as a nation is recognizing that challenge and investing huge amounts of money into incentivizing young people to get their education.

"That, I think, is a much more important priority than Social Security," he said. "That can be fixed with a moderate tweak. This is our economic livelihood."

He told the more than 400 people packed in the hall, plus about 60 more listening in an overflow auditorium, that he was "profoundly skeptical" of President George W. Bush's Social Security overhaul and that he doubted there was a process in place to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, Sen. Obama continues to downplay his role in the halls of the Capitol. He made similar comments at a town hall meeting in November following his election.

"I'm the 99th ranked senator out of 100," he said. "When I got to the Senate, they handed me some pencils to sharpen, and a broom to sweep up after the session."

The first question Sen. Obama fielded was about President Bush's Social Security plan.

"The notion that the system will go bankrupt is untrue," he said. "There are two ways of fixing it: you have to put more money in or take less money out, or a combination of the two."

Two options are to increase the payroll tax or raise the current $90,000-a-year ceiling on the amount of annual earnings on which people must pay Social Security taxes, Sen. Obama said.

He also told the audience that President Bush's tax cuts aren't healthy for the United States, taking away from road projects and health-care programs.

"I'm like everyone else, I like paying less taxes," he said, "but if you take more money out, you have less to spend.

"You have less to spend for Pell grants, less to spend for economic development block grants and less to spend for veterans’ affairs," he said.

He criticized the president for supporting the military, but cutting veterans’ benefits, including increasing prescription co-payments and charging premiums on health insurance.

The military's presence in Iraq prevents the United States from reacting quickly to other crisis points like the Sudan, Sen. Obama said. A process needs to be created to bring troops home.

"I'm so proud of the sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform have made," he said. "I am also upset that we haven't provided them with any clarity in terms of when they are coming home.

"Some have been gone six months, than 12 months, then longer," he said. "The only way to have a secure Iraq and bring our troops home is to train Iraqi security forces, and our administration has been extraordinarily poor in this process."

When asked about cuts to the Peace Corps budget, Sen. Obama said programs like that, as well as international broadcasts and promoting more foreign student programs, can help improve areas of diplomacy.

"National security depends on a strong defense and a victory in the battle of ideas," he said. "We've been very poor in the field of public diplomacy."