Reporting from Washington — Trying to woo young voters who helped him win the White House, President Obama said Thursday that he anticipated more bipartisan cooperation after the midterm election next month, while condemning the level of vitriol coursing through the political debate.
Obama spoke at a televised town hall meeting with 225 college students and younger voters, part of a coordinated effort by the White House and Democratic campaign officials to mobilize the youth vote.
He said he was committed to ending the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military on his watch, and dismissed a suggestion via an online question that the U.S. was "turning into a communist country."
The hourlong event, presented by MTV News, BET News and Country Music Television, gave Obama a forum to energize college-age voters who may have grown disillusioned with his administration.
A new poll carried worrisome news for the president and his party, showing that only 44% of students approve of Obama's job performance. In May 2009 that figure was 60%. The new poll was conducted by the Associated Press and a division of Viacom's MTV networks called mtvU.
The format of Thursday's meeting was meant to draw in young viewers; the moderators plucked questions from the " Twitter-verse" and called on college students from the Washington area.
Obama entered the stage and quickly gave a man hug to co-moderator Sway Calloway, who is described on MTV's website as "an icon of hip-hop culture."
But in many ways the event was indistinguishable from Obama's other town-hall-style public appearances. He wore a suit and tie and gave lengthy answers in serious tones. Fielding questions from students expressing hurt or fear, Obama steered clear of emotions, couching his answers in terms of policy and political reality.
One woman, in tears, said she was waiting for her green card and feared she might not get to see her 92-year-old grandmother in Colombia. Obama said to say hello to her grandmother, and then spoke of the need "to accelerate the process for legal immigration."
The session's first question came from a Republican woman who said she was disappointed that the president hadn't done more to bridge party differences. Obama said he was hopeful that conditions would improve after the midterm election on Nov. 2.
"My hope is that as we look forward, let's say on education or on energy … that we're going to have a greater spirit of cooperation after this next election," he said.
He took a strong stand against the ban on gays serving openly in the military, but said he had to operate within U.S. law. A federal judge this week ordered an end to enforcement of the federal law used to remove gays from the military, but the administration asked the court Thursday to set aside the ruling until they can appeal it. Obama has signaled that he wants Congress to repeal the law. Government lawyers said Thursday that an abrupt court-ordered injunction against the law would adversely affect military readiness.
In recent weeks, Obama has made college campuses a special focus in an effort to repair frayed bonds with young voters who were at the heart of his political base. He appeared before 26,000 people at the University of Wisconsin in Madison last month.
He held a televised town hall event at George Washington University in Washington on Tuesday. On Sunday, he and first lady Michelle Obama will headline a rally at Ohio State University in Columbus. Ohio-born singer-songwriter John Legend will perform.
Obama will also lead a rally at the University of Southern California next Friday.
Buttressing the White House effort, the Democratic National Committee released a TV ad on Thursday aimed at young voters. The 30-second spot aired for one day on MSNBC and BET. It showed footage of the president's appearance in Wisconsin and other events, closing with his message that "we can't sit this one out."