WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama didn't say anything particularly newsworthy at Wednesday's Twitter Town Hall. But his hour-plus appearance before a social media savvy crowd and the company's founder did demonstrate a unique ability to not only circumvent traditional media but to enhance his political power in the process.
White House officials have been clear that the town hall would have no relation, connection, or effect on the president's re-election efforts. During a Tuesday conference call previewing the event, a senior administration official ducked a question about how Obama's campaign team may slice and dice Twitter data from the event to gauge public opinion on a range of issues.
"I can't comment on the campaign," said Macon Phillips, the White House director of new media. In terms of how the White House may look at data, Phillips emphasized administration officials won't have access to any data that isn't already publicly disclosed by Twitter.
But even if the event had no direct use for Obama's aspirations for a second term, the political benefits it provided were apparent.
For starters, Obama got major face time on cable news networks. CNN and MSNBC both cleared their dockets for roughly a full hour. Breaking to the president isn't entirely rare for these two networks. But that usually comes when there is breaking news or a high-profile press conference or statement -- not a town hall question-and-answer session. The innovation of the forum was, apparently, a big enough draw to drop regular programming.
The town hall also gave Obama a chance to remind the public about his social media sensibilities. In addition to the White House heavily promoting the event as a first-ever presidential town hall on Twitter, Obama kicked off the Q&A session by walking up to a laptop computer and "making history" by becoming the first president to live-tweet.
Like other presidential forums, Obama used the event to re-affirm and re-outline his policy platform, whether on the economy, clean energy, immigration reform, taxes, deficit reduction, Afghanistan or gay rights. He also took swipes at Republicans for their posture in the debt ceiling debate, specifically the way lawmakers have framed the argument over tax revenue.
"When people say 'job-killing tax increases, that’s what Obama is proposing,' … you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts," he said. "And the facts are that a modest increase for wealthy individuals is not shown to have an adverse impact on job growth."
But the most tangible political gain Obama made on Thursday was through Twitter itself. The president picked up nearly 30,000 new followers at his campaign account, @barackobama, in the past day alone -- putting him above nine million followers. This, too, seems like a benefit that will be restricted to White House use. But it is a benefit nonetheless, giving the administration even more options to disseminate its message without leaning on the traditional media filter.
Certainly, the White House seemed pleased with the response it received.
"As of noon, there were more than 60,000 tweets about the event using the hashtag #AskObama," according to background material released by the White House earlier Wednesday.
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