If you took part in Thursday’s live online presidential town-hall meeting, you had the chance to submit your questions to President Obama via text or video. Then you got to vote on the popularity of the questions, effectively ranking them for the president’s staff to consider.
So some might think somebody was blowing smoke when it turned out that the four most popular questions under the “financial stability” category had to do with the legalization of marijuana. At least President Obama may have thought so.
“I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” the president said as the East Room audience of invited guests snickered. For those wondering if he supported regulating and taxing the drug to bring in revenue and create jobs, Obama’s answer was a definite buzzkill. “The answer is — no, I don’t think that’s a good strategy to grow the economy,” he said, and the audience applauded.
Other than that response, what was billed as the first-ever live Internet town hall meeting at the White House looked and sounded like a lot of other town halls hosted by presidents from both sides of the political aisle.
The Medium Is the Message?
The virtual town hall was received with some enthusiasm by the online audience. The whitehouse.gov Web site said nearly 93,000 people had submitted more than 104,000 questions — all focused on the economy — and had cast 3.6 million votes on those questions.
“The goal is to open up the White House to the American people, to give you a direct line to the administration,” Dr. Jared Bernstein, chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden, said to the audience before introducing the president. Bernstein served as moderator for the event.
Calling the online town hall an “experiment,” President Obama continued his recent theme of bypassing the D.C. press corps and traditional media to sell his ambitious economic recovery plan. “What matters to you and your families and what matters here in Washington aren’t always one and the same,” he said. “Jared, let’s see how this thing works.”
The first voted-upon question from the online audience focused on his education goals. A woman from Georgia sent a video question asking about plans to keep jobs from going overseas. Three Kent State University coeds gave an loud “Hello Mr. President!” in unison during their video question on national service/college tuition goals. “That was pretty well done,” Obama responded.
Technically, the presentation on whitehouse.gov — depending on your computer’s capabilities and broadband line — featured an occasionally jittery video stream but clear audio. However, there was little actual interactivity going on during the town hall meeting. The questions and videos had been submitted beforehand; the acceptance of questions was shut down a half-hour before the event started.
Continuing the Great Communicator’s Theme
Obama appears to be a keen student of the direct-to-the-public communications strategies first perfected by Ronald Reagan and is attempting to co-opt the Internet and social media for Democrats in the same way that conservatives used talk radio to rise to prominence during the 1980s, said David Domke, communications professor and head of the University of Washington’s journalism department.
“They (the administration) get their message out directly as they want to, without the skepticism, the give-and-take, back-and-forth that the Washington press corps demand,” Domke told TechNewsWorld. “In terms of being an optimal communications tool, the administration is doing what the campaign did: We’re the online generation, so it’s merely an updated version, not that groundbreaking, but it really is using the new technology.”
Domke calls it “narrowcasting,” a media tool he’s written about in his book, The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America (Oxford, 2008). The ability to use new media to shape and control its message is a big part of the Obama team’s strategic DNA. “They aren’t using these strategies — they’re living these strategies. You don’t have to feel they are using social media and the Internet manipulatively, you just have the sense they were raised with this, this is second nature to them, and it’s every bit as profoundly impactful on media politics as we had with Reagan,” he said.
Thursday’s town hall featured hand-picked audience members, and the president’s team chose which questions to answer. But voting up marijuana-legalization questions shows how some elements of a virtual town hall can still be gamed. Domke says the president probably isn’t that worried. “He’s talking to activists, highly politically-engaged citizens. They’re going to come with their distinct agendas. He doesn’t mind any of that, they’re going to get out and knock on doors and work for his budget.”