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Obama Holds Town Hall With European Students

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

After three days in London at the G-20 Summit, President Obama is in the French city of Strasbourg, right on the border with Germany. It's where NATO leaders are meeting and where Mr. Obama will ask them for a strong endorsement of his new strategy in Afghanistan. But first, the president took part in a town hall meeting with French and German students.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: A morning flight carried President Obama to France and to Strasbourg, where NATO is marking its 60th anniversary. After a meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy, the two leaders met with reporters. Mr. Obama previewed the message on Afghanistan he'll give to NATO leaders.

President BARACK OBAMA: And so this is not an American mission, this is a NATO mission. This is an international mission. France has always understood that. And for that, I'm very grateful.

GONYEA: From there, President Obama headed across town to a small sports arena for a town hall meeting.

Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentleman, the President of the United States and First Lady Michele Obama.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GONYEA: The president began with a lengthy opening statement, where he talked about the economic crisis and about the need to rebuild the trans-Atlantic alliance. The crowd numbered more than 3,000, most of them high school and college students. Mr. Obama began calling on audience members who waved their arms and tried desperately to get his attention. Some mixed the substantive with topics not so serious.

Unidentified Woman: Do you think that the economic crisis is an opportunity to restructure our industries in an ecological and sustainable way? And I also was wondering whether a dog was already in the White House or not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: We are getting a dog. This is a very important question in the United States.

GONYEA: As to the first part of the woman's question, the president said the economic crisis does create an opportunity in this area. He said stimulus money can and will be used to make government buildings more efficient, and to begin to transform America into a greener economy.

Another questioner asked if he ever regrets having run for president. He said, no, describing it as an opportunity to make a difference and to serve. But he lamented the lack of privacy and wistfully recalled the days when he could sit in a cafe and watch the crowd pass by.

After each answer, Mr. Obama scanned the audience.

President OBAMA: I'm going to ask that young man in the suit, you know, because he got dressed up today. I know he doesn't usually wear a suit. Yes.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: I just want to know, well, what do you expect from the French and the European countries regarding the war on terror?

GONYEA: Now, the war on terror is the Bush administration phrase and one the Obama White House makes it a point of not using. He did answer the question though.

President OBAMA: We cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president, suddenly everything is going to be okay. It is going to be a very difficult challenge. Al-Qaida is still bent on carrying out terrorist activity.

GONYEA: Mr. Obama went on to say that it is important to show the Muslim world greater respect. He said al-Qaida and others like it do not deserve the same. He also used this answer to, again, talk about Afghanistan, stressing that the U.S. should not bear the burden of the mission alone. The reaction afterward was enthusiastic, to say the least.

Seventeen-year-old Lucas Luke(ph) is from Heidelberg, Germany.

Mr. LUCAS LUKE (Resident, Heidelberg, Germany): Yeah, all of a sudden he was there and everybody was screaming. And it was really, it was a great feeling because you're only used to see the president from the TV. But all of a sudden, he stands right in front and you're just amazed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: And you shook his hand.

Mr. LUKE: Yeah, exactly. That's great.

GONYEA: If this felt like a U.S.-style campaign event, it's no coincidence with President Obama selling his idea of a restored U.S.-European relationship directly to these young people. It could yield benefits even as he holds more formal meetings with heads of state at the halfway point from this European tour.

Don Gonyea, NPR News in Strasbourg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.