By Michael A. Fletcher and Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 27, 2009
President Obama, who used the Internet as a prime driver of his successful campaign for office, turned to the Web yesterday to harness support for his economic agenda by hosting an electronic town hall meeting from the White House.
The administration called the "Open for Questions" town hall, which included several questions posed via YouTube videos, a way of directly connecting everyday Americans with the president. "I promised to open up the White House to the American people," Obama said at the start of the session, adding that the meeting "marks an important step towards achieving that goal."
Despite the technical elements and the regal venue, the meeting had the feel of a typical presidential town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., or even a campaign stop.
Wireless microphone in hand, Obama paced the ornate East Room for more than an hour answering questions culled from 104,000 sent over the Internet. Online voters cast more than 3.5 million votes for their favorite questions, some of which were then posed to the president by an economic adviser who served as a moderator. The president took other queries from a live audience of about 100 nurses, teachers, businesspeople and others assembled at the White House.
Obama was asked about topics such as health care, education, the economy, the auto industry and housing. In most cases, he used his answers to tout policies laid out in his $3.6 trillion budget proposal, his housing bailout plan and the recently enacted economic stimulus. Several of his responses drew applause from the live audience.
The questions that drew the most votes online had to do with the budgetary and economic impact of legalizing marijuana. They were listed on the White House Web site under the topics "green jobs and energy" and "budget." White House officials later indicated that interest groups drove up those numbers.
Keeping with the meeting's democratic intent, Obama offered a lighthearted response to the legalization question. "I don't know what this says about the online audience," the president joked before saying, "I don't think that is a good strategy to grow the economy."
In response to another question, Obama said he will share his administration's plans for helping ailing automakers within the next few days, and he reiterated that the country needs a strong domestic automobile industry but that automakers must develop a sustainable business model.
On job creation, he warned that the dramatic job losses of recent months are not likely to be reversed before the end of the year. In response to a question about when jobs that have been moved to foreign countries may return, the president was not reassuring.
"Not all of these jobs are going to come back," he said, adding that many of the jobs lost were low-skill and often low-wage work. The nation's economic future, he said, should be tied to creating high-skill, well-paying jobs in fields such as renewable energy that would be difficult to move out of the country.
Arguably the most animated and substantial exchange was between the president and a longtime teacher from Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia who was seated a few feet behind him. The teacher asked Obama for his definition of "a charter school" and "an effective teacher." While Obama quickly dispensed with the first part of the question, he could not get the teacher to answer when he asked whether in her 15 years on the job she has encountered colleagues who she would not want to teach her own children.
"My point is that if we've done everything we can to improve teacher pay and teacher performance and training and development, some people just aren't meant to be teachers, just like some people aren't meant to be carpenters, some people aren't meant to be nurses. At some point, they've got to find a new career," he said.
Heather Holdridge of Washington was one of the guests who sat in the East Wing yesterday. She is director of political advocacy for Care2, a Web-based green and environmental community. Along with community leaders, small-business owners and labor organizations such as the Service Employees International Union, she got a call from the White House on Wednesday afternoon and was invited to attend the event.
"I just thought it was extraordinary that our government is now opening itself up in this scale and allowing itself to really engage with citizens," Holdridge said. "I think more and more people will get involved because they see that they can be a part of a dialogue."