Obama hosts 'virtual' town hall

March 27, 2009|By James Oliphant and Frank James | James Oliphant and Frank James,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -Bringing a high-tech twist to the familiar forum of the town hall meeting, President Barack Obama played host Thursday to a so-called "virtual" town hall meeting in the East Room of the White House, answering questions from attendees and from participants online.

Half of the questions posed to the president were selected in an online vote by visitors to the White House Web site, who were asked to choose among hundreds of thousands of suggested questions. About 3.6 million votes were cast.

The voting aspect of the exercise drove traffic to the White House Web site, where the president's agenda could be read in detail. Since voters had to provide their name and e-mail address, it enabled the administration to build an e-mail list that could be another messaging tool to reach the public.

The event, which was broadcast live by cable news networks, was the latest in a series of aggressive steps that Obama has taken recently in an attempt to reach the public without relying on the traditional news media - a tactic he employed with great success during his presidential campaign.

To that end, Obama has picked his NCAA basketball tournament winners on ESPN and traded jokes with Jay Leno. Last night, he was scheduled to appear on Univision, a Spanish-language TV network.

The town hall meeting, in a particular, is a favorite device. Obama employed it during his campaign to combat critics who said he was too aloof - and to dispel the notion that he was a larger-than-life media creation. After the spectacle of the Democratic National Convention, he took to public libraries in Ohio and turbine factories in Pennsylvania - all in an attempt to demonstrate that he had a common touch.

At the time, Obama's objective was to persuade voters who were skeptical of him as a potential president. Now, it is to convince them that his policies will put the nation on the path to economic recovery.

In both situations, the method has been similar: Interact directly with the public, both in person and on the Web.

President Bill Clinton participated in an online chat in 1999, when people still used the term "World Wide Web." Among other new elements, Obama allowed the public to choose which questions were most important.

In the 48 hours before the event, nearly 93,000 people submitted 104,092 questions. In the end, he answered only six questions submitted online.

But when voters came, they stayed awhile. The average visitor to the Web site voted 30 to 45 times, the White House said.

"People are sitting down and engaging," said Macon Phillips, the president's director of new media. "When you have that many people, think of the distributive brainpower. People are coming together to collaborate."

Aaron Smith, a researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said he found the level of interest among participants impressive.

"It matches up with our research on what people expect from the administration," Smith said. Shortly after the election, survey respondents told Pew they wanted to continue to hear from Obama and his aides through the Internet.

Some people in the demographic that Obama was trying to reach were enthusiastic about the event. "There's something transformative about this presidency when you see this sort of online forum. The office will never be the same," said J.C. Lee, 26, via the micro-blogging service Twitter. Lee is a playwright and director of The Future Leaders Institute in Oakland, Calif.

Others were less impressed. "It's just another town hall," wrote Ed Pastore, 40, of Alexandria, Va., via Twitter.

"Our expectations were lowered by the previous president's lack of technological savvy," Pastore said in a phone interview. "I think any president in this day and age should at least have a staff that knows how to use the Internet."

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