BINGHAMTON — President Barack Obama, spending an hour of his stop at the Binghamton University campus Friday taking questions from students and faculty members, called for reduced reliance on fossil fuels as an energy source, and rebuked congressional Republicans for “manufacturing” a crisis over the federal government’s budget deficit.
During a town-hall style meeting, the second-term president showed that even though his last election is behind him, he is willing to punch back at his GOP critics.
He criticized Republican recommendations to slice spending for science and education programs, contending such cuts would harm the nation over the long term.
“That’s like eating your corn seed, you know?” Obama said. “It’s like being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Before taking questions from the audience, Obama gave a prepared speech focusing on his vision to make college education more affordable for families, repeating many of the points he had underscored one day earlier at the University at Buffalo.
It was during the question-and-answer session when Obama loosened up, cracking a joke when he took a question from one woman who was clad in an Obama T-shirt.
“If you want to get called on, wear the president’s face on a shirt,” he said to a burst of laughter.
With his motorcade greeted on campus roads by demonstrators on both sides of the hydrofracking debate — there were far more anti-frackers in the crowd — Obama took a question inside the hall about funding for the “green economy.”
The president called for stronger energy-conservation measures, described natural gas as a “finite resource,” even as he noted domestic gas and oil production has helped make the nation less dependent on foreign sources of fuel.
“We know that if we design our schools, homes, hospitals more efficiently, that as a country we could cut our power usage by 20, 25, 30 percent with existing technologies and we can put a bunch of folks to work,” he said.
However, he stayed clear of the controversy over hydrofracking, an especially hot topic in the Southern Tier region, considered a likely target of the gas industry if the Cuomo administration in Albany decides to open up the state to high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing for gas trapped under layers of shale.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Obama made a bit of news on a surprising front when he opined in response to one question that he believes three-year law school programs could be consolidated into two years.
Before making that declaration, he quipped: “This is probably controversial to say, but, what the heck, I’m in my second term, so I can say it.”
As for his reasoning, he said, “In the first two years, young people are learning in the classroom. The third year, they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm even if they weren’t getting paid that much, but that step alone would reduce the costs for the student.”
In the main theme of his speech, Obama called for the creation of a national rating system of colleges, with attention to efforts to rein in student debt and tuition amounts. Federal aid to colleges would be based on the scores to encourage colleges to make education more affordable, he suggested.
The presidential motorcade was greeted by demonstrators with chants of “no fracking way.” The crowd of several hundred people was orderly but loud.
Kelly Branigan of Middlefield, who said she had also protested at Obama’s speech in Syracuse one night earlier, said she suspects Obama has been supportive of fracking because of what she called bad advice from advisers who take their cues from the gas industry.
“Would he move his family next to a compressor station or a gas pad?” she asked, contending the casings used in drilling are all doomed to fail at some point.
Eddie Rodriguez of Butternuts, an activist who often films such demonstrations, said the protests are designed to show political leaders that “there is a disconnect between the government and the people. The government is not listening to what the people want. The president is promoting fracking, and that’s not what we want him to do.”
Gilda Ward of the Norwich Tea Party Patriots had a different message for Obama. She contended that the Affordable Health Care Act will hurt working families financially. She also said she was there to protest the president’s immigration legislation.
“He’s talking about amnesty (for undocumented immigrants) before he even secures the borders,” said Ward, a Mt. Upton resident.
Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and author who has emerged as one of the leaders of the anti-fracking movement in New York, said the demonstration in Binghamton was aimed at convincing Obama that “we can’t frack our way to energy independence.”
Saying that the planet was lurching towards irreversible climate change because of the continued release of greenhouse gases, she argued New York should become a national leader in promoting expanded use of energy generated from wind, water and solar methods.