President Obama denied being anti-business and repeatedly stressed his commitment to "entrepreneurs and innovators" Monday at a "town hall"-style forum that allowed the president to try clearing the air over his economic policies.
But anyone looking for the spontaneous -- and loud -- vibes that marked last summer's town hall meetings over health care and spending might be left disappointed with the ambience.
The forum differed from your typical political gripe session in several ways. It was hosted by CNBC as a commercial-free special. It featured a cast of Obama-friendly questioners, though their questions reflected deep concern about the direction of the economy. It had a moderator, correspondent John Harwood. It had a formal dress code. It was held at the flashy Newseum in Washington, D.C.
As soon as it ended, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele accused the president of stressing image over action.
"Just as they did with the Gulf oil spill, this administration continues to put a higher priority on communicating around their failed economic policies than actually solving the country's economic problems," Steele said in a statement.
But the unique, choreographed event nevertheless provided Obama an opportunity to send a direct message to the business audience at large. The president used every opportunity Monday to stress his interest in keeping America's entrepreneurial spirit healthy amid concern that his tax policies are inhibiting economic growth and hiring.
Asked whether he was vilifying business, Obama said: "Absolutely not."
"We benefit from entrepreneurs and innovators who are going out there and creating jobs," he said.
He defended his call to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans but dismissed the notion that he's been beating up on Wall Street -- saying the country needs a "vibrant, vital financial sector" which behaves in a "responsible way."
"On average, millionaires would get a check of $100,000. And, by the way, I would be helped by this, so I just want to be clear. I'm speaking against my own financial interests. This is a -- it is an irresponsible thing for us to do. Those folks are the least likely to spend it," he said to applause.
Confronted with voter concerns about the slow pace of recovery, the president argued that the economy has "stabilized" and pleaded with the public to be patient with his administration's efforts.
"It's slow and steady as opposed to the kind of quick fix that I think a lot of people would like to see," he said. "Something that took 10 years to create, you know, is going to take a little more time to solve."
CNBC, in a preview article on the forum, described the audience as a cross section of college students, small business owners, union leaders and others. Obama described the dapper crowd as "middle-class."
The questioners came from a variety of backgrounds. One was a Pennsylvania small business owner. One was a law school graduate struggling to land a job. One was a Wall Street executive who said he went to law school with Obama.
"It's good to see you. You've done very well," Obama told him.
Their questions were pointed -- but there was nary a heckler in the crowd over the course of the hour-long Q & A.
The mood was a sharp contrast to last year's congressional town hall meetings, where lawmakers bared an outburst of voter anger over health care and the economy. One of the most infamous took place last August when an apparent constituent told Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., that one day God will "judge you." Specter tried to calm down the crowd so that the questioner could finish his thought. The exchange became one of several YouTube sensations regarding the health care debate.
To the contrary, the exchange with Obama Monday was cordial and conversational. The president joked with the audience members. Applause rang out when he criticized Tea Party groups for "yelling" and again when he called the idea of House Minority Leader John Boehner becoming the next speaker "premature."