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Obama to hold an online town hall

The president will take questions posed by visitors to the White House website.

March 26, 2009|Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — President Obama will take questions in the East Room of the White House today, but they won't be coming from the Washington press corps.

Instead, the questions are being posed by visitors to the White House website, and then vetted by other visitors for their relevance and importance.

Those queries that rise to the top of the pile will be posed to the president at 11:30 a.m. EDT, in an order based on popularity, administration officials said.

So far, questions about Obama's NCAA bracket picks are sorting toward the bottom of the list, along with those about what kind of dog the first family will choose.

Instead, visitors are giving high ratings to questions about the economy -- the stated purpose of the virtual town hall -- and the president's plans to fix it.

There are some tough questions on Obama's plan to save the banking industry and on financial stability in general, said Macon Phillips, director of new media for the White House.

He said the president was soliciting the "wisdom of the crowd," a phrase Phillips thinks ought to have a good connotation.

"Community input can be extremely valuable," said Phillips, an Alabama native who launched the White House's current website on Inauguration Day.

"This isn't us putting our finger in the wind and asking, 'Which way should we go?' It's us getting a snapshot from people about what's on their mind. It's a way of tapping into the collective wisdom," Phillips said.

The town hall will take place before a live audience, members of which also will ask questions. Other questions will be posed by video, reminiscent of the YouTube debates that took place during the presidential primaries.

Jared Bernstein, Vice President Joe Biden's economic policy advisor, will moderate for Obama as he fields questions.

It is not clear how far down the list of selected questions the president will get, and aides would only say that "many" of the most popular queries would get an airing.

The virtual town hall represents a unique Obama twist on the traditional form. But Phillips said the White House was not trying to screen out tough questions.

"The president is at his best when he's answering difficult and challenging questions," Phillips said.

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cparsons@tribune.com

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