Obama says he would be willing to support offshore oil drilling


Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. greets supporters Friday following a town hall meeting in St. Petersburg.

The Associated Press
Published: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 12:39 a.m.

ST. PETERSBURG — Barack Obama said Friday for the first time that he would be willing to support limited additional offshore oil drilling if that’s what it takes to enact a comprehensive policy to foster fuel-efficient autos and develop alternate energy sources.

Shifting from his previous opposition to expanded offshore drilling, the Illinois senator told the Palm Beach Post that he could get behind a compromise with Republicans and oil companies to prevent gridlock over energy.

Meantime, Obama was warmly received as he told about 1,000 Florida voters about his new “emergency economic plan” to provide Americans relief by this fall.

“You can’t afford to wait for relief,” Obama said. “Right now people are suffering.”

For more than an hour, Obama had what he called “a conversation” with Floridians inside the gymnasium at Gibbs High School. His 30-minute speech and the questions that came afterward zeroed in on pocketbook issues: jobs, education, gas prices, housing and health care.

“The first thing I want to do, Florida, is just ask you a simple question,” Obama said. “Do you think you are better off ...”

“No,” the audience interrupted.

“... than you were four years ago?” Obama asked.

The economic plan Obama announced Friday is twofold.

He proposed providing families with $1,000 rebates this fall that they could use to offset the cost of gas or other rising expenses. Obama said he would pay for the rebate checks by taxing oil companies’ windfall profits.

The second part of the plan calls for $50 billion in government spending. Obama did not say where that money would come from, but that it would be used to stimulate the economy and create jobs.

Half would be made available for state governments with large budget shortfalls, and the other $25 billion would go toward rebuilding the country’s bridges, roads and schools.

“If we want to create jobs, we should do more to make work pay for ordinary Americans,” Obama said. “That’s what my plan does.”

Obama’s Republican opponent, John McCain, responding to the troubling economic news Friday morning, said in a statement that “across this country, Americans are hurting, and today’s job numbers are just the latest reminder of the economic challenges we face.”

“Unlike Senator Obama,” he said, “I do not believe that raising taxes is the answer to our economic problems. There is no surer way to force jobs overseas than to raise taxes on businesses.”

Obama also touched on another issue that is specifically important to Floridians, and on which he and McCain disagree: a national catastrophe fund.

On Friday, Obama even had support in the audience from Randy White, the founder of Without Walls International Church in Tampa, one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing churches.

A handful of hecklers disrupted the event just as Obama was addressing the housing market collapse less than halfway through his 30-minute speech. The St. Petersburg members of the group International African Revolution had scored prime, guaranteed-on-TV seats behind Obama’s podium in the back row below a “Change We Can Believe In” sign — unbeknownst to Obama’s staff.

“What about the black community, Obama?” they shouted while holding up a sign bearing the same phrase. The crowd tried to drown them out with signature Obama chants of “Yes We Can.”

Obama, struggling to get a word in between their yelling, told the group he would let them ask their question during the question-and-answer session.

“Just be courteous, that’s all,” he said.

An Obama staffer hustled up the bleachers and snatched the sign after some supporters nearby had taken it away.

When it came time for questions, voters asked the Illinois senator about his views on immigration. He said he supports a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who “have put down roots” in the United States.

Voters also used the half-hour session to ask what Obama plans to do to help wounded military veterans (end long deployments, better treatment facilities), education programs (higher pay for teachers, make college affordable with a yearly $4,000 tax credit in exchange for community service), and the growing national debt (economic stimulus plan, ending the war in Iraq).

“We’re in a hole now financially,” Obama said. “We’re going to have to dig ourselves out.”

Asked what he would accomplish during his first 90 days in office, Obama said he would “really get a serious energy plan in place.”

As for the hecklers, Obama answered their question, saying he has spoken up for the black community as a U.S. senator by taking on predatory lending that has targeted blacks and Latinos, and as an Illinois state senator by passing legislation to reform racial profiling and death penalty laws.

“I may not have spoken out the way you would have wanted me to speak out,” Obama said, “which gives you the option of voting for somebody else.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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