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Obama reaches out to youth at digital 'town hall'

Supporters watch around the country and submit questions via Twitter, Facebook and Skype. Technological glitches plague at least one group.

October 13, 2010|By Christi Parsons and Peter Nicholas, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington and Woodbridge, Va. — President Obama bemoaned the American attention span in a novel town-hall-style campaign event Tuesday night convened in part via an array of digital media options, including Twitter.

But true to form, the president used considerably more than 140 characters — the limit of a typical tweet — to urge supporters to convey his message. He took up most of the hourlong webcast to remind them of what Democrats have done during 20 months in power.

Unfortunately, Obama said, the vagaries of the 24-hour news cycle are working against him.

Washington media is more focused on "what happens this minute as opposed to what needs to happen over the course of months, years," Obama told his audience. "The attention span, I think, is so short that sometimes it's difficult to keep everybody focused on the long term."

In at least one of the hundreds of "watch parties" taking place around the country, the problem wasn't news media with an attention deficit but technology itself. At the Democratic headquarters in Prince William County, Va., a group struggled to watch the live webcast at the Obama website first on Dell computers and later on a laptop, all of which cut out repeatedly because of a faulty Internet connection.

Ironically, the event had been billed as cutting-edge, including the use of Skype to ask the first question. It was the latest attempt by the president and the Democratic Party to reignite the youthful excitement that helped propel Obama to victory in 2008.

Set in an intimate circle at George Washington University, which Obama described as "down the street" from his "really nice house," the event was a toned-down version of some of his campaign appearances. The president was surrounded by mostly young faces, and a youthful organizer from Obama for America acted as moderator. Obama took questions through Facebook, Twitter and Skype.

In Florida, a dozen Democrats gathered in Rosalyn Clark's living room in Apopka, near Orlando. Registered nurse Loretta Gilot, 43, who volunteered for Obama's presidential campaign, hoped the pep talk would pay off for Democrats next month.

"I think getting people together like this will definitely reinvigorate the enthusiasm that was there in 2008," Gilot said.

In Albuquerque, 25 people watched at the home of Thomas Solomon, the Democratic ward chairman.

Vicki Maenchen, 57, an artist originally from Manhattan Beach, said the specter of a Republican victory has finally gotten her "fearful enough" to help get Democrats to the polls. But many of her friends who voted for Obama are disappointed at how little he's accomplished, she said. "They all expected so much."

The mellow audience at George Washington University included none of the progressive demonstrators who have pumped up crowds at recent campaign events, giving Obama a reason to engage in the fiery oration he used during the 2008 campaign.

The questions were so friendly that Obama finally had to acknowledge that one of them was "softball."

His supporters asked how they could sell the Democratic message and get their friends to the polls.

Obama took a moment to talk up a few Democrats he said had been courageous, noting three House members in tough races — Tom Perriello of Virginia, John Boccieri of Ohio and Betsy Markey of Colorado.

"There have just been some folks who have stood up knowing they might be putting their congressional careers at risk," Obama said.

But his message hasn't penetrated, he said, in part because of the new media environment.

That wasn't the problem in Prince William County, however.

There, a total of seven Obama supporters crowded into a small room at the Democratic headquarters, watching the session as they balanced paper plates of cheese and crackers on their laps.

As the Internet connection repeatedly failed, their exasperation grew.

"We need help here again," a man called out to the young Democratic campaign aides scurrying through the warren of offices. "Anyone have a sledgehammer?"

cparsons@latimes.com

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Parsons reported from Washington and Nicholas from Woodbridge, Va. Christine Show and Martin Comas in Florida and Michael Haederle in New Mexico contributed to this report.

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