Politics & Government

Obama debuts 'Twitter Town Hall' presidential Q&A

WASHINGTON — Fireside chats have come a long way.

With his Twitter town hall on Wednesday, President Barack Obama added to a long list of techniques that presidents have used to get their messages to the public.

FDR talked to Americans in their living rooms through radio broadcasts. JFK excelled at televised news conferences. Bill Clinton took questions on MTV and "Larry King Live."

Obama became the first to "converse" with people at their computers and mobile phones — through the Twitterverse. People Tweeted questions to #AskObama, or hyped questions they liked by re-Tweeting them. The president didn't Tweet in reply, but appeared on a streaming webcast to answer some in real time.

Obama didn't break a lot of new ground, but this time it was more about the medium than the message: He talked at length about a range of issues, from the importance of weaning the country off oil to streamlining visas for immigrant entrepreneurs who'd add jobs to the country.

He answered Tweets from ordinary, everyday Twitterers, such as _RenegadeNerd_, who asked about the debt ceiling. Then there were elite Twitterers, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and even House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who railed about Obama's "record spending binge" and asked, "where are the jobs?" The president replied that while he thought it was a "skewed question," he agreed that job growth hasn't been fast enough.

Macon Phillips, the White House director of digital strategy, said in a conference call with reporters that the town hall was an effort to have a "productive conversation with the public."

"If you're going to communicate with the broad public, it's no longer sufficient to simply do it through mainstream media," he said.

But Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College, said that while Twitterers would enjoy the town hall, it was essentially a novelty, and that Obama's message would get to the broader public through the mainstream media covering the event.

Still, some political analysts said the event made Obama seem innovative and in touch, and it also served a campaign purpose. In his 2008 campaign, Obama effectively engaged supporters and donors through social media and the Internet, raising $600 million.

Steven Smith, a political scientist at the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy, said that even if the Twitter town hall ended up being a one-time event, the White House Twitter account probably gained new followers, a free, easy way for the White House to reach more supporters.

Social media gurus generally gave the Obama town hall a thumbs up for bringing more voices into the political dialogue, though they noted that the president is late to Twitter, as he only began Tweeting personally a few weeks ago, using the signature "-BO."

Moreover, the public's side of the conversation wasn't easy to determine, and not only because questions were limited to 140 characters. During the town hall, a monitoring platform by Mass Relevance — a Twitter filtering service — and eight curators pored over tens of thousands of Tweets to select a sample that represented the voice of the public.

Mass Relevance reported that 169,395 Tweets went to #AskObama. The four biggest topics of questions were jobs, at 18,957, the budget, at 15,000, taxes, 14,777, and education, 8,833.

Another monitoring firm, Radian6, transformed 1.2 million Tweets from the past eight weeks into a jumble of statistics that represented the Twitterverse's political temperature. It found that around 38 percent of political conversations on Twitter dealt with national security and 34 percent with financial security.

Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the online Personal Democracy Forum, said traditional town halls couldn't tap public opinion the way Twitter could, in that a limited number of people asked questions that might or might not be relevant to the public. But anyone can ask questions on Twitter, and people can re-Tweet and essentially vote on what's important to them.

Still, the concepts of town hall and Twitter can be antithetical.

"Twitter is in essence an asynchronous platform that's available in real time all the time," Rasiej said. "If I can ask a question of the president, and it gets re-Tweeted, why do I have to wait for (him) to hold a town hall?"


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