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Obama's Day 100 at MO town hall

From NBC's Athena Jones

ARNOLD, Mo. -- President Obama marked the 100th day of his young presidency with an event here in the bluest of 2008's red states, taking stock of his accomplishments and the challenges ahead and fielding questions from a jam-packed high school gym.

Obama narrowly lost Missouri to John McCain -- by roughly 4,000 votes out of about three million cast -- making it the only true battleground he didn't win. He campaigned in the Show Me State just two days before Election Day, and today, he told the crowd of about 1,100 people here that he was glad to get out of Washington and come back to middle America "where common sense often reigns."

The president's own aides may be calling it a "Hallmark holiday," but that hasn't stopped them from trying to shape the narrative about this fledgling administration. Obama spent 22 minutes summarizing his first three-and-a-half months in office before opening it up to the floor.  

"After 100 days, I'm pleased with the progress we've made, but I'm not satisfied," he said. "I'm confident in the future, but I'm not contenct with the present."

In remarks that were reminiscent of campaign stump speeches, his February address to a joint session of Congress and a recent event at Georgetown University, Obama told the audience that he had inherited a nation facing huge challenges that could not be dealt with through "half-measures."

He talked about new jobs that were being created in Missouri and elsewhere as a result of the stimulus package, tax cuts for the middle class, the law he signed to protect equal pay, expanding health coverage for children, the plan he introduced to help stabilize the housing and financial markets, his plans to end the war in Iraq and to implement a new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and his belief in the importance of renewed diplomacy and direct engagement with friends and foes around the world.

He also reminded the audience, as he does in almost every major speech, that the road to recovery would be long and that there were still many people struggling unemployment and health-care costs.

"You know that our progress has to be measured in the results that we achieve over many months and years, not the minute-by-minute talk in the media," he said. "And you know that progress comes from hard choices and hard work, not miracles. I'm not a miracle worker."

Arguing that there was still much work to be done, Obama spoke about the need to pass new rules to regulate Wall Street this year and to improve schools, to institute a market-based cap on carbon polluton and restore fiscal discipline.

In a return to the kind of populist rhetoric that was a hallmark of his speeches on the trail last fall, Obama said his campaign had not been born in Washington but in places like this, among  hard-working families, and he told the crowd he spent every day in the White House working for them.

"I promise you, I will always tell you the truth about the challenges we face and the steps that we are taking to meet them," he said in closing. "I will continue to measure my progress by the progress that you see in your own lives."

The president then spent about 50 minutes taking six questions from the audience on the auto industry, education, how to fix social security and the environment. Ever on message, the president turned the conversation to health care at one point, without prodding, and reiterated his goal of passing health-care reform this year.

The crowd, made up of state and local officials, students and people who obtained their tickets through an Internet lottery, interrupted the president frequently with laughter and applause.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and Gov. Jay Nixon joined Obama at the event, along with top advisers David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, Mona Sutphen and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Taking on critics, talking massages
In defending his efforts to tackle several areas at once by passing a massive stimulus package, Obama said he wanted to remind people who watch "certain news channels on which I'm not very popular" that his detractors were "playing games" when they sought to portray the $787 billion stimulus package as the source of the country's deficit problems.

He also sought to show his independence from his supporters by mentioning he had heard "some grumblings and complaints from certain factions in the Democratic Party" when he decided to send 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, but that this was necessary  to make sure Osama bin Laden and his "cronies" did not have a safe haven.

There was a funny moment during the Q and A when the president told one woman, a massage therapist, that he could use a rub down.

"My back's stiff," Obama said. "I've been working hard."

The crowd laughed when the woman responded: "I'll be happy to help ya."

Obama has made a point of getting out of what he calls the Washington echo chamber and speaking directly to people, often in swing states. It's a tactic he and his aides feel helps him use his popularity to win support for his initiatives. 

But today's escape was short-lived. Obama headed back to Washington after the event, stiff back and all, where he'll likely face tougher questioning from reporters at his third prime-time press conference.