Obama holds first White House 'online town hall'

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 27 2009 09:50 PM | Updated as of Mar 28 2009 05:50 AM

WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama fielded online questions from the public Thursday in a live White House webcast, tackling topics such as jobs, education, health care and even legalizing marijuana.

Obama, who pledged before taking office to run the most accessible and transparent administration ever, replied to questions submitted through the White House website, whitehouse.gov, and from a select audience of guests.

Obama, who ran an Internet-powered campaign and has said he will be constantly looking for new ways to connect with ordinary Americans, paced around the room with a microphone replying to questions on a range of topics.

The forum, which took place in the White House's East Room, where Obama held a traditional news conference for reporters on Tuesday night, was shown live on the White House website.

"When I was running for president, I promised to open up the White House to the American people," Obama said. "And this event, which is being streamed live over the Internet, marks an important step towards achieving that goal."

A total of 92,925 people submitted 104,129 questions and cast 3,607,837 votes for their favorite questions during the slightly more than 36-hour window on whitehouse.gov when they could do so.

The White House said the webcast attracted 67,000 viewers to whitehouse.gov.

Many of the questions were about jobs, the budget, education, health care reform, the auto industry and the home mortgage crisis.

But a surprising number were about legalizing marijuana, apparently the result of a concerted online campaign by pro-legalization groups.

Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of TechPresident.com, a blog that examines politics and technology, compared the event to the radio speeches made by president Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

"It's a great first step in creating the first 21st century 'fireside chat' where the president can speak directly to the American public without relying on being filtered or soundbited by the mainstream press," Rasiej told AFP.

"But more importantly, it's an acknowledgment by the White House that there is in fact a 21st century participatory democracy," he said.

"Now let's turn it into a permanent fixture to allow the American public an ongoing conversation with the president on a regular basis when questions continue to float up to the top as events around the world unfold," he added.

The event also won praise from Ellen Miller, executive director of the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, a group dedicated to using the Web to bring about greater government openness and transparency.

"Conceptually they made the effort," she said. "It was a huge step forward in using the Internet. It was inventive, it was engaging."

The White House described the initiative as a "community-moderated online town hall" and "hopefully a large first step forward toward new kinds of direct engagement between the White House and the public."

Jared Bernstein, chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden, acted as the "facilitator" for the event, selecting and reading out the questions, which were shown on huge video screens in corners of the East Room.

Obama answered six questions submitted online, including two sent in by video, and another six from some of the 100 guests identified by the White House as teachers, nurses, small business owners and community leaders.

Obama also decided to answer a seventh online question -- about whether marijuana should be legalized -- that was not chosen by Bernstein.

"I don't know what this says about the online audience," Obama joked before delivering a "no" on making marijuana legal.