The formula can feel familiar: a gathering of diverse notables, a tour of community nonprofits, a town hall or maybe a speech. Conversation launched!
Meanwhile, Obama’s Twitter feed, with its 26 million followers, is just one part of a White House digital operation aimed at influencing the conversation. Consider the White House’s online petition effort, which recently featured a discussion about whether the United States should build a Death Star; or its “fireside hangouts,” including one with Vice President Biden focused on gun violence. (“The single best thing we can do is have a national dialogue about this,” Biden affirmed.)
Long before Obama’s Las Vegas speech on immigration reform, the White House Web site even offered a “toolkit” with instructions for users on how to hold a roundtable on the issue in their communities:
“You may consider inviting participants from diverse sectors. . . . Have everyone sign-in. . . . Ask the group to work together to educate your community and its leaders about what is needed to fix our broken immigration system. . . . Return the completed toolkit to us. . . . Continue the national conversation on this issue!”
Responsible fathers? Sustainable cities? English skills? Death Stars? It’s harder to imagine the White House providing handy instructions for people to start community conversations on, say, the legality of drone strikes — even though that might be a conversation worth having.
On the tougher questions, the national conversation is tougher to harness.
“Already, we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun-safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system,” Obama said in January 2011, after an Arizona gunman killed six people and put a 9mm bullet through then-Rep. Gabby Giffords’s head.
The president echoed the theme in December after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. “The question is,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “are we going to be able to have a national conversation and move something through Congress?”
But only after Newtown did Obama move from conversation to action, putting Biden in charge of a task force on gun violence and laying out specific proposals. Was the attempted assassination of a sitting member of Congress not enough of a conversation starter?