The President Will See You Now

Obama’s gimmicky online chat session actually worked.

Barack Obama speaks during an online town hall meeting 

Barack Obama doesn’t care much for cable news, but that doesn’t mean his administration won’t borrow one of its ideas. On Thursday Obama held the first-ever “online town hall,” with questions—104,074 of them!—submitted by “real Americans”—92,933 of them!—and streamed live over the Internet. In form, it echoed CNN’s YouTube debates from the presidential campaign. In concept, it mirrored the cable network’s penchant for using marginal technological innovations—it was community moderated!—to make news out of reporting the news. Fortunately for America, no one showed up by hologram.

It was an effective expansion of the presidential bully pulpit and the latest in a wide-ranging White House effort to talk directly to people. It may be Obama’s best gimmick yet—entertaining enough to get people to watch but also a risk-free platform for him to give a presentation of his policies.

Presidents are always trying to get around the traditional news filter. But it’s not easy. Part of the difficulty is built-in: One of the goals of going around the media is to get coverage in the media. Holding town hall meetings is a popular trick, but if they’re full of softball questions, they aren’t newsworthy. Local news stations may cover them, which can be important during a campaign, but national attention is preferred when you’re trying to sell the nation on your programs. George Bush held a flood of these anodyne serendipity-free town halls when selling his plan for Social Security, and they failed to galvanize public opinion.

Another way for a president to go around the traditional news filter is by putting his weekly address on YouTube. But the White House knows that after the second week, when the gimmick wears off, people tune out. It’s not special enough.

So Obama’s “online town hall” was a combination of these two strategies—and it actually works. It’s just gimmicky enough for people to watch it online, if for no other reason than the quasi-populism of the question-and-answer session allows people to join in the fun of going around the news filter that many of them think is obsessed with trivialities. And yet the news filter can’t let go: The cable channels carried the town hall live and reported on it extensively (expanding the audience). It was also very safe—the questions were picked by community vote, but anything out of the mainstream can be finessed out of the conversation. A lot of people asked about legalizing marijuana, for example, and Obama brushed the issue off with a joke. The online town hall also now sits on the White House Web site, where people can access it at any time.

The production values of the hourlong event were high. The East Room, where Obama had held his press conference earlier in the week, was transformed into the fanciest high school gym in America. Just as they did in the campaign, some sat on bleachers behind Obama, and the rest of the crowd sat in a circle with the president in the middle. The president was relaxed and at ease, pacing the carpet while he held a microphone in his hand. He took six questions from the Internet—including two video questions. He also took six questions from the live audience. The crowd was screened, so it was not a surprise when a nurse from the SEIU stood to ask a question.

Not all chance was ironed out of the event, though. The president got a little jokey with a teacher from Philadelphia, saying that he knew she knew some teachers who weren’t very good at their jobs. He was talking about merit pay, but the woman he spoke to was not playing along. Whether she was tacitly agreeing with him and just trying not to show it, or genuinely uncomfortable, wasn’t clear as he tried to get her to acknowledge that what he was saying was true. “You’re not saying anything,” said the president to laughter. “You’re taking the Fifth.”

Despite that brief rough patch, Obama was at his earnest best, giving long, explanatory answers without sounding pedantic. He’s been getting ribbed for using a teleprompter recently, but there wasn’t one in sight for the hour-plus show he put on. He answered questions with enough detail that it was clear he’d been reading his briefing books. He talked about everything from the federal procurement procedures that bundle contracts to the advantages and disadvantages of single-payer health care plans.

Though Obama has been expanding his ways of “meeting people where they live,” as one senior aide put it, he’s hardly forgotten about the traditional media. He may not have called on members of the Washington Post or the New York Times at his last news conference, but he visited the Post’snewsroom on the eve of his inauguration, and he gave the Times a lengthy interview aboard Air Force One. White House aides have a healthy appreciation for the reach of the three big television networks, which is why Obama sat down for an hour and a half with 60 Minutes last weekend and why he’ll appear on Face the Nation this weekend. Obama may be going around the filter, but he’s also using the filter as much as he can. One day, he might even go on a cable news channel.