Obama stages online charm offensive

In the first-ever online White House town hall Thursday, US President Barack Obama answered questions posted online, some of them grave, some not quite.


The man credited with pioneering the use of the Internet on the presidential campaign trail made cyber history again Thursday, this time in the White House, when US President Barack Obama answered questions during what was called the “Online Town Hall”.


More than 100,000 questions were submitted on the White House site after Obama invited ordinary Americans to dialogue in an introductory video posted Wednesday.


Users were invited to pose questions – in text or video format – on a variety of issues ranging from the auto industry and the financial crisis, to education and health care reform. Web users who had signed up on the White House Town Hall website were also able to vote for the questions they most wanted their president to answer.


“Getting people to use video and allowing them to vote on questions is a first,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and the techPresident blog. “I think this was the first step toward creating 21st century fireside chats,” he added, referring to former US President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats over the radio during the Great Depression.


‘A real time presidency’


During a difficult week that saw his embattled treasury secretary facing a grilling in Congress, Obama’s online charm offensive appeared to have gone down well with the public – especially the wired world.


“Not only are we experiencing a real time presidency, but a demonstration of the potential of the Internet to create a more robust and participatory democracy that is more transparent and accessible to the average person,” said Rasiej.


Looking relaxed before a roomful of people and the Web cameras streaming the video live online to a global audience, Obama took on a series of questions about the economy.


Addressing the issue of job losses, Obama warned that the worst was probably yet to come. "We are going to have to be patient and persistent about job creation because I don't think that we have lost all the jobs we are going to lose in this recession," he said. "We're still going to be in a difficult time for much of this year."


‘I don't know what this says about the online audience’


In stark contrast to his more formal press conferences and televised speeches, Obama’s online performance Thursday was markedly casual – and sometimes even funny.


While taking a question on education – and on the level of teacher training in particular – Obama asked the crowd gathered at the White House if they could trust their kids with some of the teachers currently working in the American school system.


When he didn’t get a reply, he quipped, “You’re not saying anything, you’re taking the fifth,” referring to the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution, which allows individuals to refuse to testify under oath.


Obama also scored points when he addressed an issue that many who had gathered in the White House room and in front of their computer screens across the world never thought he would.


An inordinate number of questions about the legalisation of marijuana were submitted to the Online Town Hall, when the pro-marijuana legalisation lobby appeared to have hijacked the forum Wednesday.


For Rasiej, the marijuana phenomenon was a reflection of the way the Web and the democratic process works. “Organised minorities are always more powerful than disorganised majorities,” said Rasiej.


On Thursday, Obama proved that if he’s willing to invite questions from the people, he’s ready to take them on as well.


Much to the surprise of his cyber audience, the US president did acknowledge some of the more creative pro-marijuana questions. "I don't know what this says about the online audience," Obama joked, before noting that no, unlike some of his online audiences, he did not believe the legalisation of marijuana would stimulate the economy and pull America out of the financial crisis.

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