Ifill to Elkhart: ‘What Gives?’

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

First, some background to explain the headline above and the subject of the column. On Wednesday evening, the nightly PBS NewsHour presented a nationally-televised, one-hour special called “Questions for President Obama.” It was a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., hosted by Gwen Ifill, the NewsHour’s co-anchor and also the moderator of PBS’s weekly “Washington Week.” The special took place in the town’s Lerner Theatre and featured the president, interviewed by Ifill for about 11 minutes, and then the president took questions from the local audience.

But before any of that unfolded, Ifill introduced the program this way: “Welcome to Elkhart, Indiana, as we sit down with President Obama and the residents of this community to discuss their concerns, look back on his time in office and assess the feverish campaign to succeed him. This marks the president's fifth visit to the once and again RV capital of the world – a small city where the unemployment rate hit 19.6 percent his first year in office and now has dropped to about 4 percent. But this White House isn't getting any credit for that turnaround. Residents here voted for Ted Cruz in this year's primaries and Mitt Romney by two to one in 2012. Even when President Obama won Indiana in 2008, just as the economy was crashing, Elkhart went with John McCain. So what gives? We've asked some of the people who live here to join us on the stage of the beautiful Lerner Theatre here downtown for an intimate conversation.”

I only got a few letters about this program, which surprised me, but in what seemed to be a few microseconds (actually an hour or so) I got a critique of the program, centered on that introduction, that had been posted on the conservative website NewsBusters.org, headlined “PBS’s Ifill Knocks Indiana Town for Not Enthusiastically Supporting Obama; ‘What Gives?’” This did not surprise me.

The NewsBusters posting said, “Taking into no consideration things that the townspeople or local and state government may have done to improve business, Ifill went right to wondering why ‘this White House isn’t getting any credit for that turnaround.’” The writer described “so what gives” as “a poor choice of words at the minimum.”

Eye and Ear Catching

That introduction caught my attention as well. It was unusual, sort of surprising, a little glib, especially the “So what gives?” part, and sure to be vulnerable to criticism by some viewers as partisan. I thought it was fair for NewsBusters to call attention to it.

On the other hand, I, personally, gave Ifill the benefit of the doubt as I watched because this also struck me right away as a smart, gutsy way to set the stage and get the most out of this hour; not just to draw out the president but especially the local audience on a fascinating aspect of contemporary American politics. The way Ifill put it reminded me immediately of the very popular, and also controversial, bestseller from 2004 by journalist/historian Thomas Frank titled “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” which the late political writer Molly Ivins described as “the only way to understand why so many Americans have decided to vote against their own economic and political interests.”

Ifill never actually asked that “So what gives?” question to anyone directly. But the local audience supplied some very authentic experiences and views in the questions they posed to the president. The questioners were good, clear, engaged, challenging and polite. And whatever you think of the president, he showed himself to be smart, informed, able to discuss whatever is asked, and quite open and expressive about his personal instincts.

My Thumb Is Up

So as a viewer, I found this to be a good and informative program and quite a refreshing change from what too often passes as political conversation these days. It is, in my opinion, well worth watching the video above if you missed the program. Here are some of the moments that I found telling.

A young farmer told the president he was “a fifth-generation fruit and vegetable grower here in Elkhart County. And over the last six years, we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of regulations that touch all aspects of our business, from the Food Safety Modernization Act to Obamacare and many others. Now, large farms are able to comply with these regulations more easily, and small family farms we've seen actually exiting the industry. At what point are we overregulated, if not now? And how can we encourage younger growers to either stay or enter an industry when the barriers to entry are higher than ever?”

The president said it was a great question and gave a long answer. I’m not sure it was received as a great answer because the expression on the farmer’s face never changed.

Another farmer also asked about Obamacare and was very specific. “I've been receiving my health insurance through the marketplace. And the first year, the subsidy was very high and my premium was very low and I was very happy. Now, beginning in January of '16, the subsidy was lower and my premium went up dramatically. And my income was nearly the same. In fact, for this year I'm paying 22 percent of my income for health care. So that's my concern and my complaint.”

Here, too, the president gave a long and complex answer but acknowledged that he would have to get more specific information about the farmer’s situation to provide a more precise answer.

Truthiness Still Matters

On a couple of occasions the president made a point about how important it was to base our views on facts at a time when truth was diminished as a commodity in political discourse.

A union member said he had a “two-part question for you. First, with over 79,000 Syrian refugees already coming into the states and tens of thousands more coming in, how can you guarantee that there's none that have been radicalized? And two, don't you feel that that money would be better spent taking care of the tens of thousands of homeless veterans we have sleeping on the streets every night, some with children and the ones committing suicide daily? Thank you, Mr. President.”

The president explained that “we don't have tens of thousands of Syrian refugees coming in. We're trying to admit several thousand. So far, I think, we've been able to admit about 2,500. In contrast, Canada's taken in 25,000. We're a much bigger country. Germany's taken in half a million...so I think it's really important to understand we're not spending a lot of money on bringing in and housing refugees, and this is – this is what I mean about making sure when we're deciding about elections and voting that we look at the facts. I'm trying to get more refugees admitted. It's not close to the kinds of numbers you're talking about…They have to go through a full background check, FBI, our intelligence agencies, check through every single person who comes in. It's like a month-long process…And we have cut veterans homelessness since I've been in office by about a third. Tens of thousands of veterans who used to be homeless are now housed.”

On Gun Control

In a question about gun control that took place as the program continued once it was off the air, Obama was asked about “why you and Hillary want to control and restrict and limit gun manufacturers, gun owners and responsible use of guns and ammunition to the rest of us, the good guys, instead of holding the bad guys accountable for their actions?”

Obama answered, in part: “The notion that I or Hillary or Democrats or whoever you want to choose are hell-bent on taking away folks’ guns is just not true and at no point have I ever, ever proposed confiscating guns from responsible gun owners. So it’s just not true…There is a way for us to make sure that lawful, responsible gun owners like yourself are able to use them for sporting, hunting, protecting yourself, but the only way we’re going to do that is if we don’t have a situation in which anything that is proposed is viewed as some tyrannical destruction of the Second Amendment. And that’s how the issue too often gets framed.”

Why Bathrooms Rise to the Top

What I thought was the most compelling exchange on the program came when Arvis Dawson, a community leader who cited his religious beliefs and church background, said this to the president: “I am a strong believer in equal rights for everyone... I was wondering, though, with all the pressing issues that you have before you right now...why is the issue of which bathroom a person uses such an issue?”

The president’s full answer is definitely worth listening to, in my view, but here is a bit of what he said: “It's a great question. Somehow people think I made it an issue. I didn't make it an issue...

“What happened and what continues to happen is you have transgender kids in schools. And they get bullied. And they get ostracized. And it's tough for them.

“And, you know, we're of the generation where that stuff was all out of sight and out of mind and so people suffered silently. But now they're out in the open. And the question then is, schools are asking us, the Department of Education, for guidance, how should we deal with this?

“And my answer is that we should deal with this issue the same way we'd want it dealt with if it was our child. And that is to try to create an environment of some dignity and kindness for these kids.

“And that's sort of the bottom line. I have to just say what's in my heart but I also have to look at, you know, what's the law?

“And my best interpretation of what our laws and our obligations are is that we should try to accommodate these kids so that they are not in a vulnerable situation.

“Now, I understand that people, you know, for religious beliefs or just general discomfort might disagree. And I'm not the one who's making a big issue of it.

“But if the school districts around the country ask me what do you think we should do? Then what we're going to do is tell them let's find a way to accommodate them in a way that makes sure that these kids are not, you know, excluded and ostracized.”

Posted on June 3, 2016 at 2:37 p.m.

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