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Umbrellas didn’t get past security.

There were no other speakers at Obama’s town hall in Arnold, MO, to celebrate his first 100 days in office–just a barbershop quartet singing the National Anthem;

a pastor who delivered a (rather long winded) prayer; a Vietnam vet who led the pledge of allegiance; and a woman who has raised her children in nearby Imperial and who switched last election from voting for Republicans. She introduced … wait for it … President Obama. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the gym exploded. Twelve hundred ticket holders were on their feet cheering and clapping.

Choosing Linda Pleimann for the intro was a subtle way of reaching out to the half a percent of Missouri voters who kept Obama from carrying the state last November, the Republicans who need a few gentle nudges in our direction. Predictably, the move was part of today’s Post-Dispatch coverage of the event:

Linda Pleimann of Imperial also heard Monday that she would introduce Obama. She had campaigned for Obama and said he was the first Democrat she had voted for since Jimmy Carter.

“At first I wasn’t sure I could get out of work,” to attend Wednesday’s event, said Pleimann, a hairstylist. “When I told my clients, they said, ‘Cancel me!’ No one complained.”

Pleimann, whose stepson, Sgt. Carl Pleimann, is stationed in Germany after having recently finished a tour of duty in Iraq, said the president helped calm her nerves.

“We walked in together and he said, ‘This is going to be fun,'” she recalled. “And just before I walked on stage he said, ‘Go get ’em.'”

Another gentle nudge was Obama’s choice for his last questioner: an angelic looking (check out the pic), articulate fourth grader named Laurel, who wanted to know about his plans to fight climate change.

Laurel was the culmination of the town hall part of the meeting, one of only six people who got to ask questions. After his brief opening remarks about what he hopes to accomplish, Obama announced that he would take questions from the audience, and that he would go “boy, girl, boy, girl” in choosing the questioners. I’ll admit it’s a hasty generalization to say that Democratic office holders conduct their town halls more open handedly than Republicans, but I couldn’t help but remember how scripted was the “town hall” Akin and Leutkemeyer conducted a couple of weeks ago, with questions submitted in advance and carefully screened. Obama and McCaskill are free wheeling, ready to handle whatever pops out of the mouths of their questioners. Claire picked questions out of a fishbowl at her recent kitchen table talk in St. Charles, and the President picked people at random in the crowd. Akin makes me think of the way Bush used to keep protesters in a screened off area a mile away from wherever he was.

The Q & A lasted an hour, but only six people got to pose a question.  That’s because it wasn’t a “sound bite” occasion. As a University of Missouri political communications expert puts it:

“He very much takes the professorial mode, explaining the process of decision-making and inviting others to come to conclusions he has come to,” he said. “The public has become comfortable with this style in these unsteady times.”

Case in point: When asked about the solvency of Social Security, he explained how members of each generation pay for those currently retiring in hopes of the same outlay when they retire, and how the bulge caused by retiring baby boomers and the borrowing from the Social Security trust fund have put some strain on the system. He listed four or five ways of dealing with the problem, for example, raising the retirement age. (But he pointed to a retired auto worker who had asked the first question of the day and said that working on an auto line is ha-a-rd work to be doing at 68, unlike, say, working as a senator–with a sly grin in Claire’s direction.) He finally got round to proposing that we raise the cap on Social Security taxes. Bill Gates pays that tax on only 1/10 of 1 percent of what he earns, while most of us pay it on all of what we earn.

But all that was just laying the groundwork for a more important point, that Social Security is an easily fixable problem. It won’t break us. In fact, even the loans to keep the banks from going under are just a few drops in the bucket compared to what will take us under if we don’t deal with it: Medicare and Medicaid. And the way to deal with them is to include healthy people in the insurance pool to bring down costs in the long run.

The president (I just love writing that word now) went into similar depth on every question he answered.

In an audience thick with educators, he garnered applause for ideas like seeing to it that students winning National Science Awards should get as much attention as basketball players, or like increasing teacher training and pay. He pushed for more funding for community colleges, urged parents to turn off the TV set so homework would get done, and pleaded for an environment where people remember that “it’s a privilege to learn.” But he warned the audience that he had one idea they might not applaud, one that is unpopular with teachers’ unions. He wants the best teachers rewarded with more pay but he says that any teacher who, even with continued support, “is not performing up to snuff, we gotta find that person a new job.” The applause was resounding.

Even as a retired teacher, I applauded. Merit pay, if it’s “opt in” rather than mandatory, makes sense to me. It makes even more sense to prune the profession. It can be done carefully. But I’ve seen teachers who, for the sake of our students, needed to be employed elsewhere, and I’ve cursed administrators too cowardly or lackadaisical to document the ineptitude or laziness of a few teachers and send them on their way. It was embarrassing to watch principals dither about their duty, and it was frustrating to listen, year after year, as students complained about the same few teachers.

Sir, feel free to quote me.

When the last question was answered, Obama worked the ropeline–and I wasn’t the only one taking pictures.

But outside, the adulation ended. At the edge of school property were the Tea Partiers, with signs like “100 days of LIES”. And across the street were the anti-abortion folk.

People leaving the town hall streamed past, barely granting them a glance. Even a woman screaming on a bullhorn struck them as irrelevant. Part of the reason was that it was impossible to catch her words, only her furious tone.

One fool Democrat, though, stood across the street yelling back at them. Somebody needed to put a hand on his shoulder and say, “Save your breath. … And quit acting like a moron, would you?”

Hey, if Obama succeeds in most of what he aims to do, those sign-toters will become more and more irrelevant.

[E]ven polls showing lofty favorability ratings contain warning signs. In a Pew Research Center poll last week, 20 percent responded by saying “socialist” when asked for a one word impression of the new president, surpassed only by “intelligent” (30 percent) and “good” (29 percent).

The writer is correct that right-wingers are having some success tagging Obama with the “socialist” label. But, so? The name callers either have no idea what a socialist is or they’re cynically fear mongering the word. Both, probably. Here’s the thing, though: if Obama gets the economy on track, passes health care reform, and shifts us to alternative energy, he could inadvertently give “socialism” a good name in this country. If he doesn’t, we’re all screwed anyway.