In town hall with young voters, Obama tries to woo anew 'the MTV vote'

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010

There was no "boxers or briefs" moment, no chitchat about which Lil Wayne songs he has on his iPod.

During a live MTV/BET/CMT-sponsored discussion on Thursday afternoon, President Obama stuck to policy as he aimed to reconnect with young voters who invigorated the 2008 campaign, hoping they'll return to the polls for November's midterm elections and help his beleaguered Democrats in Congress.

During the 60-minute telecast, audience members asked tough questions (some tougher than others) through star-struck smiles, suggesting perhaps that Obama is a president they still adore, even if they haven't felt the change he promised two years ago.

While the occasional stumbling from questioners and even the program's hosts revealed jangled nerves, Obama maintained his unbreakable cool, offering the same bullet-point responses he finessed on the campaign trail. And while he never pandered, he didn't take full advantage of the opportunity either, speaking more from the stump than from the gut.

Broadcast from BET's Washington studios, the town hall was hosted by MTV's Sway Calloway, BET's April Woodard and CMT's Katie Cook, and aired live on all three stations -- as well as on sister networks mtvU, Centric and Tr3s -- in an attempt to reach young voters who like indie rock, hip-hop, R&B, Latin pop, country and "Jersey Shore."

And while the audience of 225 was assembled with diversity in mind, it didn't seem to extend beyond race.

Nearly all of the dozen or so audience questions were asked by local college students, with Howard, Maryland, Georgetown, George Washington and Montgomery College each represented.

So where were the unemployed? The blue collars? The war vets? On MTV, the telecast was preceded by an episode of the reality show "Teen Mom." This discussion could have used a few questions from teen moms.

The issues addressed, however, did offer some variety. Obama spoke about efforts to make the job market healthier for young entrepreneurs, he touted education reform, he emphasized a "zero-tolerance" policy for harassment, and he repeated his aim to quash "don't ask, don't tell" in response to a question from a Howard University professor who challenged him on why he wasn't acting faster.

Strangely, not one question was asked about the war in Afghanistan -- a conflict that started when many of these audience members were still flipping on MTV after school to watch Britney Spears videos on "TRL."

And while Obama has borrowed moves from the Bill Clinton playbook during his presidency, this town hall was not as effective as it would have been in 1994 when Clinton went on the network and was famously asked about his choice of underwear. That became a mini cultural moment, but today those moments are harder to come by. As culture splinters across the digital bandwidth, there's no longer a singular MTV generation to rally.

Nor are MTV's personalities as iconic as they once were. BET's Woodard accidentally introduced MTV's Calloway as "A.J." in the opening remarks, presumably conflating him for former BET personality A.J. Calloway.

Calloway then blew an opportunity to get the discussion off to a hard-hitting start, opting instead to ask Obama where he watched the telecast of the Chilean miner rescue.

Viewers sent in much better questions via Twitter. One asked whether the president thought being gay or transgendered was a choice.

"I don't profess to be an expert," he said. "This is a layperson's opinion, but I don't think it's a choice. . . . We're all children of God."

He also addressed Google generation concerns when he spoke out against cyber-bullying -- but he also reminded the audience of their responsibility. "The law is a powerful thing but the law doesn't always change what's in people's hearts," Obama said. "All of us have the obligation to think about how we treat other people."

The audience seemed to long for more empowering talk like this, and Obama could have benefited from giving more of it -- especially if he wants to inspire young voters to cast their ballots as he did two years ago.

After an hour, it was over. As the music began to blare and the credits started to roll, the president pointed at the camera as if he had suddenly remembered his entire reason for being there.

"Don't forget to vote," he said.

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