NEW ORLEANS -- On his first presidential visit to this still-struggling city that was ravaged four years ago by Hurricane Katrina, President Barack Obama promised residents Thursday, "We will not forget about New Orleans."
He also took the opportunity to bash insurance companies that he said are trying to block his health care plan to protect their profits.
Feeding off the crowd's energy at his town hall meeting at the University of New Orleans, the second of only two stops on his quick survey of the city, the president compared his own determination to expand health care coverage to the city's determination to rebuild.
"I don't quit," he said.
With affordable health coverage a key concern for many here who lost work after Katrina, Obama noted that insurance stock prices dropped this week after the Senate Finance Committee approved legislation to overhaul health care.
"Now they're getting nervous," he said of insurers.
The president warned the crowd that if they see any TV ads underwritten by "some funny-named group out there that you can't really identify, you know, 'Americans for Good Health Care' or something," that "it's probably a front group for the insurance industry, and don't let them fool you. We're going to get this done."
Among the seven questions that the president took at the town hall was one from a fourth-grade boy who asked, "Why do people hate you? They supposed to love you, and God is love."
The president reminded the boy, "I did get elected president, so not everybody hates me," but he added that TV coverage dramatizes people's anger. Much of the opposition to him is political and shouldn't be taken too seriously, he said, but some is economically driven. "A lot of people are losing their jobs right now. A lot of people are losing their health care or they've lost their homes to foreclosure, and they're feeling frustrated."
"When you're president of the United States," Obama said, "you've got to deal with all of that. ... You're going to get some of the blame, and that's part of the job."
The town hall crowd members received the president enthusiastically, even as they pressed him to do more for New Orleans, which supported Obama in last year's election.
They weren't so kind to their state and local leaders.
They booed Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, and gave a partial boo to Mayor Ray Nagin.
"This is a feisty crowd," Obama said. He defended Jindal, saying that despite political differences, "this person's working hard on behalf of the state."
Locals see Obama as a welcome change from President George W. Bush.
Obama's cabinet has gotten positive feedback in New Orleans for cutting red tape, creating a new arbitration process, making multiple visits, moving more residents out of emergency housing and freeing $1 billion in backed-up recovery funds. Still, the federal government is haggling over how much to contribute to rebuild the public hospital, and other problems remain with Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements.
Gabriel Bordenave, 29, a recent law school graduate still looking for work, pressed Obama: "I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled-and-dimed in our recovery?"
The president smiled wryly, saying he'd make no excuses for what happened earlier, but that his own team "is outstanding" and was working hard to fix problems.
"I wish I could just write a check. ... There's this whole thing about the Constitution and Congress," the president said. "One of the interesting things you find out about being president is everybody will attack you for spending money, unless you're spending it on them."
Ruth Bonds, a New Orleans native in the audience, said Obama's appearance "was good, but it could have been longer and a little more precise." Bonds works for a medical group but says even her own insurance should be better.
Her husband's a firefighter, and they have two sons on the police force. The Bonds' home was flooded in Katrina. They fled to Houston and came back to housing first on a ship, then in a FEMA trailer, until their insurance paid to fix their home in New Orleans East. But their neighborhood isn't back.
"We don't have groceries," Bonds said. "We don't have any place to shop. There's no hospital. We don't have an emergency room. You're still having Katrina illnesses, Katrina deaths from the stress of it all.
"They're bringing back fast-food places, but we don't have clinics, we don't have schools. We don't have good water," she said. "I buy water."
She said that Obama wasn't in town long enough to see all that. "I think he should make additional visits," she said.
Before the town hall, Obama stopped at the Martin Luther King Charter School, the first public school in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward to be rebuilt after Katrina.
The school band played "Hail to the Chief," and Obama told the kids that the money and attention that went to rebuilding their campus had turned it into "a school that is doing much better than it ever was doing before the storm."
He reminded the children of his own background, raised by a single mom and grandparents with humble means, and asked them to make him "a pinky promise" that they, too, would work hard in school.
A few hours later, he boarded Air Force One for San Francisco, to attend a political fund-raiser.
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