While these novel approaches have inherent risks — see YouTube star GloZell's 2015 interview with Obama, where she used an expletive to describe Fidel Castro and referred to Michelle Obama as "your first wife" — they can also pay significant dividends. Online celebrities lay claim to millions of loyal viewers, are often more sympathetic than traditional interviewers and are particularly popular with young Americans.
The YouTube interviews, which have been a fixture of the administration since 2010, are just part of the White House's push to amplify his message through social media and other digital platforms this year. The White House just joined Snapchat on Monday: The debut included a clip of an empty Oval Office, complete with its standard bowl of fresh apples, along with one capturing White House press secretary Josh Earnest preparing to enter the briefing room with staff in tow. For the first time, Obama's speech will be available to stream on-demand on Amazon Video, in addition to on the official White House website and YouTube channel. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The official White House Twitter account changed its avatar to feature its Snapchat handle Monday, and within hours, the multiplatform rollout prompted plenty of snarky asides from the White House press corps.
"What's the president going to be doing on Snapchat?" asked CNN's Jim Acosta.
"Yeah, well," White House press secretary Josh Earnest replied.
"Is he going to Snapchat with Hillary Clinton?" Acosta pressed, prompting laughter from his colleagues. "The messages disappear. ... She made that remark in the past."
"I see, I see," Earnest said. "Look, we have unveiled the White House Snapchat function. And we certainly are hopeful that people will take a look at it and follow the White House. It is just another tool for us to try to communicate with the American public about what's happening here at the White House."
White House chief digital officer Jason Goldman, for his part, wrote in a blog post that the administration's ongoing effort to "meet people where they are" means "recognizing the massive shift in the American media diet toward on-demand video."
"So, for those who've cut the cord from cable and network TV: Whether you use a smart TV, web browser, mobile device or tablet, there's a way for you to watch the President's speech as it happens and on-demand," he added.
The White House is also using the Genius app's web annotator to provide commentary on both Obama's current and previous State of the Union speeches, in what officials called a "first time digital collaboration" that "highlights a number of past and present voices from the White House team," including Vice President Biden and Obama's first head speechwriter, Jon Favreau.
For all the criticism, this year's crop of YouTube content creators appear better prepared to interview the president than some of their predecessors — in large part because their priorities mesh with those of the president. Ingrid Nilsen creates lifestyle videos, promoted Cover Girl makeup and has served as a judge on "Project Runway: Threads," but she also filmed a coming-out video last year that has attracted more than 13.7 million views.
Destin Sandlin helms "Smarter Everyday," a series of educational videos about science that attracts 3.5 million subscribers. And Adande Thorne, known as sWooZie, created a video about an incident of racial profiling by a traffic cop in Daytona Beach, Fla.
"I can’t flirt my way out of a ticket — I don’t know if you guys have noticed, I’m male and I’m black," he quips in the video. "And that’s three strikes, so I need to think outside the box whenever it’s a traffic stop."
In an interview Monday night sWooZie--a native of Trinidad who moved to Orlando, Fla. as a child, and gave his age as "twenty-something, this is Hollywood, girl,"--said he was "instantly excited" when he learned by phone a week ago he had been chosen to interview the president "because who doesn't want to ask him questions?"
"I want to ask him, 'What can we do to hold law enforcement more accountable?" said sWooZie, who also plans to discuss the problem of mass shootings in America. "Being a black male, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been harassed by the police... We basically have people with badges being bullies."
Each year, officials from YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, suggest which celebrities should interview the president. In an email Monday, a YouTube official said these three creators "were selected based on things such as audience size, how relevant SOTU themes are to their audiences, and their ability to bring a new, fresh perspective to the most important issues of our time. YouTube creators have massive and passionate audiences that generally skew younger. These creators are known to be the voice of their generation and have massive influence with their fanbases."
YouTube officials recreate the creators' sets within the White House for the interview segments, which last betweeb 10 and 12 minutes. The channel is considering mailing some of sWooZie's background art from Los Angeles, he said.
"They’re going all out this year," sWooZie said, adding he had met with administration officials twice before in the White House to discuss how YouTube creators sustain such large followings. "When they upload a video, they get a few thousand hits. When we upload a video, we get a few million hits."
For a president still intent on making his mark, Earnest said, his aides were determined to do all possible "avenues for communicating that message to the American people."
"There will be more Snapchats. There'll be more YouTube videos. Even Amazon is gonna be — you know, running the State of the Union address as a video-on-demand piece," he said, adding the White House hoped to "capitalize on these new tools to ... broadcast the State of the Union even more broadly."