Dana Milbank
Opinion writer April 20, 2011

President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg have updated their Facebook status: They are in a relationship.

“Sorry, I’m kind of nervous,” the Facebook founder confessed to the crowd at the start of Wednesday’s town hall meeting his company arranged with the White House. “We have the president of the United States here!”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Obama, who took the stage to raucous applause from the Facebookers, was equally giddy about scoring the hot company’s Palo Alto headquarters as his backdrop. “My name is Barack Obama, and I’m the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie,” he said.

“Second time,” the young billionaire informed his employees.

This was all the invitation the president needed to tell stories about his 26-year-old buddy. “The first time we had a dinner together and he wore his jacket and tie,” Obama said. “I'd say halfway through dinner, you know, he was starting to sweat a little bit. It’s really uncomfortable for him. I helped him out of his jacket. And, in fact, if you like, we can take our jackets off.”

“That’s good!” Zuckerberg said, removing the jacket and revealing his blue jeans.

“Wooh! That’s better, isn’t it?” Obama teased.

Zuckerberg gushed: “You’re a lot better at this stuff than me.”

Obama likes Facebook. And Facebook likes Obama.

Obama’s appearance in Palo Alto lent the presidential seal to the company, a sign that, after its sensational rise, it is being embraced by Washington as a major corporate player. In return, Facebook’s imprimatur helps Obama restore his luster among young voters as he begins his reelection campaign.

A Harvard University poll released last month found that 18- to 29-year-olds say they are more likely to vote for Obama than a Republican by 38 percent to 25 percent. That’s well short of 2008 levels, when he won the 18-29 demographic by 34 percentage points.

The Facebook-inspired movie “The Social Network” was playing on Air Force One as Obama flew to California Wednesday. “As you all know, dating back to the president’s first campaign for the presidency there’s a great focus on social media,” White House press secretary Jay Carney reminded reporters aboard.

One asked if the appearance at Facebook headquarters could “be construed as an effort to also promote Facebook.”

“Absolutely not,” Carney said, in an answer that was itself something of a Facebook promotion. “I mean, Facebook has half a billion users. . . More people than you can possibly imagine.”

Of those 500 million users, just under 45,000 were “attending” Obama’s town hall at the scheduled start time. Participation may have been suppressed by the requirement that you had to click the button saying you “like” the White House.

“Did you know you have to ‘like’ the White House page to attend?” one user posted on the town hall page. “I have a big problem with liking anything from this White House never mind the fact that they would then have a record that we ‘liked’ them.”

But at Facebook’s headquarters, there was no hesitation about liking Obama. “Since he’s one of the most popular people on Facebook with 19 million ‘likes,’ we feel like he’s coming home,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. “So, welcome home, Mr. President.”

Sanberg added, playfully: “Even though it’s Facebook, no poking the president.”

That no-poking rule was strictly enforced. Among the questions submitted for the session were “Mr. President, Why do u hate Americans so much?” and “Show us your birth certificate.” But Zuckerberg selected tamer questions, the majority of which were gentle queries from Facebook employees that teed up presidential applause lines.

When Obama cautioned that the wealthy would have to pay more under his budget plan, his host endorsed the idea. “I’m cool with that,” Zuckerberg said.

After reading a question about education, Zuckerberg added his own commentary: “I think that the Race to the Top stuff that you guys have done is one of the most underappreciated and most important things that your administration has done.”

In his closing oration, Obama had more admiration for Facebook when he spoke about excessive profits of oil companies. “Nobody’s doing better than Shell or these other companies,” he said. “Well, maybe Facebook’s doing a little better.”

“It’s such an honor,” the young billionaire said when Obama finished.

“We had a great time,” Obama told his Facebook friend.

Zuckerberg presented Obama with a Facebook hoodie — “in case, for some reason, you want to dress like me.”

Sounds like another relationship-status update may be in order: In a domestic partnership.

danamilbank@washpost.com