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Obama faces tough questions from students

By Tom Cohen, CNN
  • Town-hall style event includes queries from supporters and critics
  • Obama says "Oh, no" when told one person fears his re-election
  • Televised event draws more than 15,000 Twitter responses

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama heard young people speaking their minds Thursday at a respectful but challenging town hall-style event where he was asked tough questions by students who support and oppose him.

"Oh, no!" Obama responded when told one of the more than 15,000 tweets submitted to the event said the greatest fear was his re-election. Other topics challenged him on the lack of bipartisanship in Washington since he came to power, illegal immigrants, high unemployment and racism.

Obama's answers generally matched his previous statements on major issues. He emphasized the economic crisis in place when his term started in January 2009 and the steps taken to stabilize the situation, as well as the benefits of health care reform and education policies.

The president was forced to address a sensitive topic when asked directly if he believed homosexuality is a choice. Obama responded he was no expert, then added: "I don't think it's a choice. I think people are born with a certain make-up."

"We're all children of God," Obama said. "We don't make determinations about who we love. That's why I think discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong."

Unlike recent similar events in which the questions come from supporters only, the event by Viacom's BET, CMT and MTV networks started with a question by a Texas student who identified herself as a Republican and asked what happened to the bipartishanship Obama promised in this 2008 election campaign, particularly on the issue of health care reform.

Obama, standing in the center of the live audience and using a microphone, calmly responded that his administration and Democratic leaders held numerous meetings with Republicans to try to reach agreement on a bipartisan plan.

"We just couldn't get there," he said, then added that some Republicans made the political decision to oppose any bill instead of working for a solution.

"I do think that there are a lot of good Republican ideas out there," he said. "There are a number of them that were incorporated in the health care bill."

Obama called the bitter debate and legislative battle of the bill "past history," and expressed hope for more cooperation after the upcoming congressional elections on November 2.

Asked why the government mounted a legal challenge to Arizona's controversial immigration law, Obama said a comprehensive approach was needed and that his administration put more resources toward border security than the Bush administration.

He also challenged a questioner who asked about higher taxes, saying: "Taxes are not higher since I took office. Taxes are generally lower since I took office."

When a young man told him that racism in America seems to have worsened, Obama responded by pointing out that usually happens in tough economic times.

Looking around at the diverse group in the room, Obama said progress has been made over the decades.

"This audience just didn't exist 20 years ago," he said. "The amount of interaction, the amount of understanding that exists in your generation among people of different races or different creeds or different colors is unprecedented."

The key, he said, is for the nation to "work together," and he called the students and other young people the potential leaders in that effort.

"If all of you lead, then your parents and your grandparents tend to follow," Obama said, pointing to himself and joking that "as you get older, you know, your mind gets a little more set."

He added: "It needs the poking and prodding and breaking through of stereotypes that young people provide."