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President Obama's Never-Ending Virtual Town Hall

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"We're actually going to have some live stuff," explained President Obama, "instead of some virtual stuff."

On that plucky note, Obama essentially ended the first open, democratically operated virtual town hall in White House history, turning his attention to a small crowd assembled in the East Room. Thursday's town hall drew swift and divergent reactions, but few observers noted how the gathering actually contained two completely distinct events.

The "live stuff," to use the president's taxonomy, was an entirely routine presidential meet-and-greet with supporters. Five questions were chosen randomly, but they were all drawn from a screened pool of friendly faces. One questioner was invited by the DNC; another by a union that endorsed Obama; another said that he served on Obama's education platform committee. And so on. For such guests, these kind of events are usually seducing or intimidating - earnest people can easily become props.

There was a second event in the East Room, however, just before those invited guests asked their questions. Six random people - who had not been vetted and had no idea the questions that they calmly posed at home would reach the president - suddenly found their voices amplified in Washington. Not because they were handpicked for a White House event, or because they finagled tickets to a rare presidential visit, but because their questions drew thousands of votes from fellow citizens. The "virtual stuff" did not stop at empowering only those six voices, either.

"Open for Questions," an innovative, potentially combustible experiment with interactive government, sparked a rolling, two-day national debate about the economic issues facing the nation. Over 92,000 people generated roughly 100,000 questions. The depth of participation was staggering: Visitors voted for over 25 questions on average, suggesting participants wanted to listen to each other, not simply be heard. People even debated the administration's attempt to define the category of the "economy," rallying behind questions criticizing the war on drugs by casting it as an economic issue.

While the town hall did not break major "news," in the conventional sense, it clearly operated on a wider axis than traditional White House events.

Take health care, for example. The administration only talks about employer-based reforms, and so far, the Washington press corps has accepted those boundaries. In the president's first two press conferences, there was not a a single question on popular proposals for single payer health care. Many citizens, however, are still wondering if the U.S. will adopt "a universal health care system, like many European countries," as a Californian named Richard wrote, in what became the most popular health care question on WhiteHouse.gov. (A single payer query was also one of the most popular questions according to citizen votes at Ask The President, a similar, independent portal backed by The Nation, The Washington Times and Personal Democracy Forum.) In response, Obama argued that the U.S. can pursue universal health care without abandoning employer-based health care. "I don't think the best way to fix our health care system is to suddenly completely scrap what everybody is accustomed to," he said, "and the vast majority of people already have [employer health care]."

Obama also took a peppy video question from three Kent State students about student loan assistance and national service scholarships. Their question had almost no public support, drawing only six votes, as Internet Evolution's Nicole Ferraro noted. Student loan issues have been a popular priority in similar forums, though, as the New York Times reported, the top query on Ask The President was a question contrasting bailout assistance to student loan repayment. In response to the students' video, Obama explained his plan to stop private banks from profiting on government-backed student loans, a measure that some Congressional Democrats oppose, and he made the bullish promise that national service legislation would pass "in the next few weeks."

Then, even after the town hall ended, unanswered questions from WhiteHouse.gov kept bubbling up, both in online discussions and more influential forums within the White House.

During the Press Secretary's daily briefing on Thursday, Robert Gibbs discovered that the press wanted to pick up where the citizen questions left off. Several reporters pressed for answers to citizen questions that the President only vaguely addressed. It was an unusually lively exchange - one regular correspondent said it was the least controlled briefing this year.

Obama laughed off the popular questions about marijuana during the town hall - blogger Nancy Scola's Mary Jane Rule holds that pot questions always win in open web forums - but several journalists had serious follow ups.

"When the president said he doesn't think legalizing marijuana would give the economy a boost, was he giving a political answer or an economic answer?," asked one reporter, continuing, "does he have economic numbers to back that up?" First Gibbs tried to joke about a lack of government studies on that front, but the reporter pressed on: "What about medicinal marijuana?" Gibbs referred that angle to the Justice Department.

Then an NBC reporter protested to ask why Obama even mentioned marijuana, stating, erroneously, that "no one asked about it online." Gibbs noted that the question actually was popular, but then he attempted to downplay the support as the product of an "interest group." Some reporters swallowed that unsubstantiated claim, including Friday's Washington Post, but others pushed back, such as the Washington Times' Jon Ward:

You said from the podium a couple minutes ago that interest groups drove up the questions on the web site about marijuana. But the President and Secretary of State have also said in recent days that demand domestically is driving the problems on the border. You seem to be contradicting yourself a little bit and trying to say that the web site issue was an interest group issue... does the White House think that this is a major issue on the minds of the American people? Obviously you think demand is high.

Gibbs pivoted to express the administration's support for Hillary Clinton's analysis of the drug trade, but said it was a "stretch" to ask about marijuana as an economic stimulus. Ward did not let up, however, pressing Gibbs to articulate what the administration would do to "drive down [narcotics] demand." The conversation continued, as journalists fleshed out and sharpened queries on an otherwise neglected topic, all because a few thousand citizens put it on Thursday's agenda.

The interplay between the media's chosen topics and the virtual town hall experiment also went beyond the administration's reluctance to address drug policy.

First, a little context: The White House briefing room runs on its own Washington power law. Top news organizations are assigned coveted front row seats, and the Press Secretary often gives those reporters two or three questions a day. Everyone else usually sits through the briefing without being called on.

On Thursday, however, ABC correspondent Jake Tapper used his front row perch to amplify two sharp questions from WhiteHouse.gov that were not used in the town hall:

There were a couple of questions that were on your web site that were not asked that I thought were interesting that I wanted to just get an answer from you here; that they weren't the top vote-getters. One was from Jason in Detroit. He said, "Will we ever see any CEOs go to jail for destroying the economy?"...From Peter in Oregon, he said: "I appreciate the efforts of the administration to fix the economy quickly. However, why aren't you giving the American public the chance to review these bills? In your campaign you promised we would have at least five days."

The bill delay issue was more critical than any questions posed at the virtual town hall, and one conservative blogger had already flagged it as an issue that Republicans could use to organize within the Open for Questions experiment Tapper, to his credit, used the government's own forum to press unanswered citizen questions. And the administration, to its credit, built a transparent portal that lets everyone see all the questions, including popular or important items that did not make the town hall.

Those are key steps towards more open, transparent interactions between the people, their government, and the press. Reporters can use their access to give the virtual town hall questions life long after the event ended, or to sharpen, advance and contextualize generalist sentiments - legalize pot! - by repurposing them in larger policy debates - many Americans use drugs, as the administration just told Mexico, so how can you claim only interest groups support marijuana and what is your demand-side approach to drug policy?

Ultimately, virtual town halls and press conferences can be symbiotic, not competitive.
Journalists and citizens both want access to the president, but few would openly argue against access for all. After the town hall, several reporters reflexively scored citizen participants as if they were auditioning to be White House correspondents. "No hardballs," grumbled one reporter. Some political strategists, meanwhile, still presume a binary battle between online citizen access and pressers. "The prime-time news conference," says former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, "will probably be a relic real soon." He sees the virtual town hall, in contrast, as the "future." Well, maybe a distant one. This week, however, the prime time presser drew a staggering 40 million views with blanket coverage across every network, while the virtual town hall was only carried in full by CNN and C-SPAN. (FOX and MSNBC showed excerpts, and another 60,000 people watched a live stream online). The topics, tone and purpose of these forums diverge a lot, as they should. Obama ran a campaign urging voters to reject Washington's gamesmanship and "false choices," and the town hall did the same. It's not about reporters versus citizens, or hardballs versus softballs, or real versus virtual. It's about opening up government to the people. What they do with it, naturally, is up to them.

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Ari Melber covered the White House virtual town hall for The Nation, where this article was published.

Thursday's White House daily briefing with Robert Gibbs:

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