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Obama Town Hall: An out-of-work father's lament (updated)

March 18, 2009 |  6:45 pm

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(UPDATE: Turns out Dwaine Webber in this story is unemployed, but he and his former employer now agree publicly that his departure was voluntary. An updated item appears here.)

The last question for President Obama was certainly the most poignant.

Dwaine Webber, a burly 45-year-old from Norwalk, had written down on an index card exactly what he wanted to ask the president: "Thank you for taking the time to listen to me. Last October, I lost my job after 13 years. I was laid off. Now when I look for a job, people tell me that I have a felony from 20 years ago -- I can't get no work. I have a family to support. What do I do?"

The crowd reacted with uneasy silence; Obama had joked that he wanted to choose Webber for a question because he was a big guy and he didn't want him to get angry.

Obama seemed to struggle for a moment, mentally cataloging the possible answers.

"Well, first of all, I know how hard it is for you right now being out of work -- because I can tell you've got pride, you've been working, you've been supporting your family. And one of the things that's been happening in this most recent recession is men have actually been losing jobs faster than women. And that is a very difficult thing. I mean, I know that I take great pride in, you know, taking care of my family. ... The fact that you've been working steadily for 13 years post-felony seems to me...

...a message that you made amends for your past mistakes and that you are rehabilitated and that you've proven yourself in the job market. "

This drew applause from the audience, who seemed to be waiting for a signal about how to respond.

"So in that sense -- in that sense -- I think you're actually better off than a lot of folks who make mistakes and then never get that first job that allows them to rehabilitate themselves. They've got no employment history, they're just an ex-felon. They go in and nobody gives them the time of day, and oftentimes they end up getting back into trouble.

"Now, we're trying to set up some programs to help ex-felons make that transition. But frankly, based on what you're telling me, your problem is a problem that has nothing -- or less to do with your felony than the fact that the job market is really tough right now."

Obama told Webber he was confident he'd find work. But that sounded a bit stilted and Obama seemed to realize it.

"What kind of work do you do?" he asked.

Weber replied that he had worked for Toyota.

"I would have expected you to say that you were working for an American car company, because they're having much bigger problems," Obama said. "But whether it's Toyota or GM or Chrysler or Ford or any company right now, the future is going to be in fuel-efficient cars. It's going to be in these plug-in hybrids. It's going to be in developing the battery technology that allows electric cars to run for 150 miles for every gallon of gas. And what we need to do is to invest in research and development around this clean-energy auto technology. ... And hopefully we're going to put you back to work in the process."

Webber, who had operated a forklift, said afterword he was satisfied with Obama's response. His 20-year-old felony was a narcotics charge, he said.

"I was totally lifted," Webber said. "I've got mad respect for the president."

Webber said he was glad to be able to bring the perspective of those who are out of work and struggling.

"It's not every day you get to talk to the president," he said. "I mean, I'm just a normal guy."

Webber was with his teenage daughters and his wife, Arlonda. When Obama glanced their way, the daughters jumped, pointed and exclaimed, "Pick my dad! Pick my dad!"

Jade Webber, 15, said things have been hard since her father lost her job. Hearing Obama describe her father as rehabilitated filled her with emotion. "When we shook his hand, we almost cried," Jade saud. "My dad really wants his prayers to be answered."

-- Tony Barboza and Robin Abcarian

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Photo: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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