A FRIENDLY CROWD
President's Audience Heavy on Supporters
President Obama has promised to change the way the government does business, but in at least one respect, he is taking a page from the Bush playbook, stocking his town hall meeting Thursday with supporters whose questions provided openings to discuss his preferred message of the day.
While any member of the public with an Internet connection could submit a question for the event, the five identified questioners called on randomly by the president in the East Room shared commonalities. They included: a member of the pro-Obama Service Employees International Union; a member of the Democratic National Committee who campaigned for Obama in the Hispanic community during the primary; a former Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates who endorsed Obama last fall in an op-ed in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star; and a Virginia businessman who was a donor to Obama's 2008 campaign.
One of the questioners, Sergio Salmeron, became involved with the Obama campaign early in 2008, writing on his blog: "We need to mobilize towards changing the trend of '2 to 1 Latinos favoring Hillary over Barack.' Let's make a resolute commitment."
He was a volunteer canvasser for the Obama campaign, he told The Washington Post, and did voter registration work and translated materials for the campaign. A partner at Global Paradigm Strategies, Salmeron is a volunteer "member of the Democratic National Committee" and continues to be active with the Obama campaign's successor, Organizing for America, which is how he got the White House invitation, he said.
"I got a call from this woman who has been working with me for the pledge drive," he said, referring to the Organizing for America drive on behalf of the president's budget proposal. "You know, we're trying to get support out for the president's agenda."
Another questioner, small-business owner Tom Sawner, made a $250 donation to Obama's campaign on Oct. 27, 2008. He also, as he noted Thursday, served as an adviser on Obama's educational platform committee. And in 2007, Obama questioner Carlos Del Toro stood as a Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates but did not win. A supporter of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, he endorsed Obama in an Oct. 24, 2008, op-ed in the Fredericksburg newspaper.
Linda Bock, a registered nurse in Prince George's County, said she helped canvass for Obama with her chapter of the SEIU and her son and daughter. Her invitation to the White House came through the Nurse Alliance Leadership Council, she said. Like Sawner, she said didn't know until she got to the forum that it was open to questions from participants in the room. "I did not think we would be able to ask any questions," she said. "I wasn't personally anticipating being chosen to ask anything."
Bonnee L. Breese, a teacher from Philadelphia whose question has drawn a great deal of commentary, is a member of the 11,626-person Pennsylvania for Obama page on Facebook. Breese was invited to the meeting through the American Federation of Teachers and sits on the executive board of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Local No. 3.
A sixth in-person presidential questioner, "Ellie" from Maryland, did not give her surname. The White House did not respond to a request for it.
"The audience was composed of approximately 100 people, including teachers, nurses, small-business owners, and community leaders -- and the virtual audience of thousands across the country who have submitted questions online," said White House spokesman Nicholas S. Shapiro. "The White House reached out to a number of community groups and the chamber of commerce, and those groups invited their folks to come and participate."