Obama holds first White House Twitter Town Hall

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 6, 2011

Going where no president has ventured before, President Obama held the first White House Twitter Town Hall Wednesday, taking questions — no more than 140 characters each — from around the country.

It was appropriate to hold the town hall meeting in the mansion’s East Room, which in its first incarnation was named the “Public Audience Chamber.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Social media give new meaning to “public,” sometimes by providing more information about individuals than anyone really needs to know. The Obama administration, however, clearly has embraced social media’s higher calling as evidenced by the serious questions that were tweeted from near and far, including a query from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who would probably hate to be called an Obama follower.

That embrace of social media also is demonstrated by the White House staff devoted to new forms of communication. Macon Phillips, White House director of digital strategy, says his team has about 10 staff members, with an estimated average age of 27.

“We are responsible for the online program for the White House,” said Phillips, whose title is another indication of this new media age. He added that the White House is using social media to accomplish three goals:

l Amplify the president’s message by making it available in “these new spaces”

l Make the White House more accessible to people by answering their questions

l Increase participation in government by using different venues.

“Today’s event was a good example of that,” Phillips said of the Twitter program, as were previous Facebook and YouTube events.

While his crew oversaw the Twitter Town Hall, much of the work was done by Twitter and its partners.

Twitter joined with Mass Relevance, a firm that says it provides “service and expertise in real time social media.” That means Mass Relevance was responsible for gathering the thousands of tweets — more than 60,000 questions had arrived two hours before the town hall meeting began — and sorting them by region and topic. The organization also provided data on the subject areas generating the most interest.

In addition to the Twitter staff members who were on site at the White House, Twitter had a team of Twitter users around the country to help filter questions. This eight-member team was scattered from New Hampshire to California and included college professors and journalists.

“We had no role in the selection of questions,” Phillips said.

Q & A

One question had direct relevance to public employees, federal workers in particular. Someone named Patrick asked Obama whether he had a plan to rectify the loss of collective bargaining rights in several states.

Of course, the president can’t overturn state laws that have undercut collective bargaining for public employees, but he certainly made his support for unions clear:

“The first thing I want to emphasize is that collective bargaining is the reason why the vast majority of Americans enjoy a minimum wage, enjoy weekends, enjoy overtime. So many things that we take for granted are because workers came together to bargain with their employers.”

One part of his answer could be taken as a warning to federal employees that they may have to pay more for their retirement and health insurance benefits as part of a plan to reduce the nation’s financial problems, as some policy wonks have suggested.

“In the public sector, what is true is that some of the pension plans that have been in place and the health benefits that are in place are so out of proportion with what’s happening in the private sector that a lot of taxpayers start feeling resentful,” Obama said. “They say, ‘Well, if I don’t have health care where I only have to pay $1 for prescription drugs, why is it that the person whose salary I’m paying has a better deal?’

“What this means is, is that all of us are going to have to make some adjustments.”

Of course, federal employees have already made a big adjustment. Obama has frozen their pay for two years.

“Now, that wasn’t real popular, as you might imagine, among federal workers,” he said. “On the other hand, we were able to do that precisely because we wanted to prevent layoffs and we wanted to make sure that we sent a signal that everybody is going to have to make some sacrifices, including federal workers.”

Overlooked air marshals

Wednesday’s Federal Diary should have included air marshals along with transportation security officers in John Pistole’s description of Transportation Security Administration employees who are the “last line of defense” against air travel terrorism. The TSA administrator did so in my interview with him, and it was my mistake for indicating he had not.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @joedavidsonwp.

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