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Obama, facing tough questions, says times still hard

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Monday said times were still tough for many Americans, as he defended his policies during aggressive questioning after the worst U.S. recession since the 1930s was declared over.

President Obama walks towards Air Force One at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, September 16, 2010. REUTERS/Jim Young

As audience members at a townhall-style meeting voiced exasperation and disappointment at his administration, and one woman said she was “exhausted” from defending him, Obama stressed he understood that people were frustrated.

“Even though economists may say the recession officially ended last year, obviously for the millions of people who are still out of work ... it is still very real for them,” Obama told the meeting, hosted by CNBC television.

Obama’s Democrats risk punishment in November congressional elections from voters worried by U.S. unemployment, stuck near 10 percent, and by the still-fragile state of the economy.

His first questioner wasted no time in laying out her gripes with the Obama administration.

“I’m one of your middle class Americans. And quite frankly I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now,” she said.

Obama stuck to his guns, arguing the measures he had undertaken since taking office in January 2009 were slowly pulling the country back to health.

“My goal here is not to try to convince you that everything’s where it needs to be -- it’s not. That’s why I ran for president. But what I am saying is ... that we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of the U.S. business cycle, said on Monday the longest downturn since the Great Depression ended in June 2009.

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But the pace of recovery since then has remained largely below the level needed to quickly replace the millions of jobs lost in the recession, and recent economic indicators signal growth has softened again in the past couple of months.

DEEP HOLE

“Something that took 10 years to create is going to take a little more time to solve,” Obama said.

Republicans are expected to profit from the uncertain economic outlook in the November 2 midterm election, with polls suggesting they may well capture the U.S. House of Representatives and have an outside shot at the Senate.

All 435 seats in the House and 37 of the 100 Senate seats will be contested.

With his poll numbers under pressure, Obama’s supporters warned he was losing the communications battle with Republicans and urged him to fight back.

“I need you to help us understand how you can regain the political center, because you’re losing the war of sound bites. You’re losing the media cycles,” said a small business owner from Pennsylvania.

Pollster Cliff Young of market research firm Ipsos said the president had an uphill battle in changing the narrative about the economy in time for the November election.

“It doesn’t matter what he says right now. People have tuned out in some ways because they are not feeling the positive impact in daily life,” he told the Reuters Washington Summit.

Obama has sought to boost growth through an $814 billion emergency spending bill in February 2009. But additional steps to use fiscal policy to lift hiring have been blocked by Republican lawmakers worried about the record U.S. budget deficit, predicted to hit $1.47 trillion this year.

The White House proposes spending a further $180 billion over the next 10 years to renew U.S. infrastructure, boost research and encourage corporate investment.

Obama also wants to help consumer spending by making Bush-era tax cuts for families making less than $250,000 a year permanent, while allowing them to rise on richer Americans. Republicans want the tax cuts extended for everyone.

Some parts of the business community complain Obama is vilifying them and this sense of outrage is shared on Wall Street, which fiercely opposed his shake-up of financial regulations that became law earlier this year.

“I represent the Wall Street community,” said one man who runs a hedge fund. “We have felt like a pinata. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we’ve been whacked with a stick.”

Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Jeff Mason, Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell; Editing by Jerry Norton

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