Obama’s Twitter townhall: A win-win for the White House

at 10:00 AM ET, 07/06/2011


President Barack Obama makes a statement to reporters about debt ceiling negotiations, Tuesday, July 5, 2011, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Obama’s Twitter townhall today amounts to a win-win proposition for a White House looking to hone its message on the still-struggling economy and woo young voters back to the incumbent ahead of the 2012 election.

The event, which is being touted as historic, first-of-its-kind gathering, is already drawing considerable press attention and will be all the buzz of cable news in the runup to the 2 p.m. townhall. (And, yes, the Fix will be live-blogging the proceedings in this space — so stay tuned.)

“We’ve entered a difference information age where people get news and information in a different way then they did in the past,” explained White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. “That’s why we’re doing this ... its similar to what previous presidents did with the more traditional outlets.”

Pfeiffer is right. But the real reason to do an event like this one is that it affords the President nearly-unfettered message control with a young, national audience watching.

Obama’s Facebook townhall — the closest analog to what will happen today — proves the point.

Set at Facebook headquarters in California back in April, the event was moderated by the company’s founder Mark Zuckerberg. (The Twitter town hall will be moderated by the company’s co-founder Jack Dorsey.)

Obama began with a 689-word opening statement that sought to frame the domestic and international challenges before the country in an optimistic light; “I don’t think there’s a problem out there that we can’t solve if we decide that we’re going to solve it together,” Obama said.

The first question in the Facebook town hall was an open-ended one on the debt and the best way to address it. Obama’s answer spanned 1,484 words.

Seven more questions followed on topics ranging from buying a home to the DREAM Act to the rising cost of health care. Each one was asked — by audience members and those watching a live stream on their computers — in a wide-open way (not a lot of demand for specifics) that allowed Obama to essentially steer back to his core message each and every time.

Zuckerberg functioned largely as a traffic cop during the town hall, interjecting his own thoughts only once — to praise Obama’s “Race to the Top” education program as “one of the most under-appreciated and most important things that your Administration has done.”

What the townhall amounted to, then, was a series of riffs on policy matters of the day by President Obama with minimal follow-up by either the moderator or the audience.

(Sidebar: Zuckerberg is not a reporter nor does he purport to be one so it’s not surprising he took the approach he did in the Facebook town hall.)

It seems likely today’s Twitter event will take on a similar feel although a spokesman for the company did not return an email seeking details on how exactly the questions would be picked and how active Dorsey would be as moderator.

That, in an of itself, is a messaging win for this White House. When you add to it the fact that social networking sites like Twitter skew toward younger voters — a major target for Obama in his 2012 re-election race — it amounts to a second victory.

(In a 2008 Pew study, nearly 7 in 10 users of some form of online social networking were 35 and under; that number dipped to 48 percent in 2010 but the young-- and relatively young — remain the largest bloc of users. Click here for the full Pew study.)

In the 2008 election, voters aged 18-29 comprised 18 percent of the overall electorate and voted for Obama over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by a 66 percent to 32 percent margin.

In the 2010 midterms, voters 29 and under made up just 12 percent of the electorate and went for Democrats by a much slimmer 13-point margin — one of several factors in the GOP wave that swept the country.

For Obama to win re-election next fall, he needs to replicate (or come close to replicating) his 2008 showing among young voters. Reaching them where they consume most of their information — Facebook and Twitter — is the best way to do just that. (Might we see a texting town hall next? We kid. Sort of.)

Today’s Twitter town hall then — almost regardless of the actual content of the questions — amounts to a win-win for the White House.

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