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Going online with Obama

The president's town hall meeting on the Web may provide insights about his policies -- and about us.

March 26, 2009

Thirty-two years ago this month, President Carter set a new standard for openness and accessibility in the Oval Office by inviting the public to call and ask him questions. The callers weren't screened, and the two-hour session with Walter Cronkite was broadcast live on radio stations across the country. Nine million people phoned the White House for a chance to jawbone with the leader of the free world, and 42 got through. Their wide-ranging questions offered a snapshot of the national mind-set, revealing concerns about such topics as how Carter might stimulate the economy, whether he wanted to hike the gas tax and why his married son was living in the White House. In other words, they didn't throw him softballs, nor did they stick to the policy issues that occupied the Washington press corps.

Now, President Obama is updating Carter's experiment for the Internet era. Earlier this week, the White House invited the public to submit questions online. He plans to answer a sampling of them in a webcast today at whitehouse.gov/openforquestions, although the administration hasn't indicated how many. Taking advantage of the tools available online (in this case, a Google application), the White House is also letting the public shape the event by having Web users vote on one another's submissions. That sort of "crowdsourcing" promotes the questions that spark the greatest public interest.

Today's event won't be as spontaneous or interactive as the one in 1977, which allowed more of a back-and-forth with the president. If Obama ducks a question, no one will be able to press for a response. Nevertheless, it's a welcome complement to the sessions with reporters on the White House beat, who can be so focused on inside-the-Beltway wrangling that they overlook the real-world issues that matter most to the general public. We got a glimpse of the difference during the presidential primary debates, when some of the most thoughtful questions were submitted by the public via YouTube.

That's not to dismiss the vital role of the capital press corps, which presidents have long sought to bypass in favor of friendlier media outlets or a direct line to the public. Nor is Obama's online Q&A public participation in its purest form -- many of the questions appear to have come from organized campaigns, including those devoted to legalizing marijuana and scrapping income taxes. Nevertheless, today's session gives the public a valuable chance to participate, while also demonstrating how the administration's message on economic issues is playing at the grass roots. In that sense, today's questions may be as enlightening as the answers.

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