From the moment the announcement came out that President Barack Obama was going to have a Twitter Town Hall, I had a bad feeling about the whole enterprise. Political discourse in this country is sound-bite driven enough, now the president’s going to answer policy questions in 140 characters or less? It turns out that while the President did give viewers and Tweeters more than just 140 characters he didn’t give his supporters or those expecting another 2012 campaign innovation much to get excited about.
Starting around 2:00 on July 6th the format of the Twitter Town Hall was fairly simple. Throughout the day voters submitted questions to the president at #askObama and he would answer those questions from 2 to 3:15 p.m. during a live webcast from the White House. Theoretically this is a great set up; the president Tweeting back to constituents in real time, showing off his tech skills and maybe dropping an SMH or two. Unfortunately the end result wasn’t nearly as sexy as the advertisement. First, the 40,000 tweets that came throughout the day were to be sorted by ‘curators’ local political or media experts that would sort through the Tweets and send in the ‘best’ ones. This became a bit of a problem since only 18 questions actually got answered by the president and one was from Republican House Leader John Boehner and another New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristoff. So much for the regular people getting through. At least @_RenegadeNerd_ in Atlanta got some love. [“At Twitter Town Hall, Obama Dodges 14th Amendment Question“]
Next, Obama didn’t answer questions in real-time, the Twitter handle was just placed on screen and he answered during the webcast. There were no real-time interactive answers until a few random Tweets were answered at the end of the debate. The whole thing reminded me more of that awful Republican YouTube debate from 2008 more than Obama’s fairly interesting Facebook townhall from earlier this year.
Of course, what might’ve helped is the fact that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for all of his geekiness seemed a bit more chilled out with the president than Twitter Co-Founder Jack Dorsey. Yesterday he looked like a first year journalism student who couldn’t figure out if he should look at the camera, the screen or Obama.
None of the above would matter however if the townhall itself had resulted in some major policy proposals, compelling phrases from the president or even laid the groundwork for the 2012 campaign but it managed none of the above. Perhaps it’s because Obama knows that he’s got some tough negotiations coming on for the debt ceiling with Republicans, or he’s just incapable of making a strong partisan statement with 9.1% unemployment but at just about every turn he failed to articulate policy stands that would make a Democrat or centrist Independent proud. He spoke in general terms again about the stimulus package, claiming it was the right idea at the time but acknowledging it should have been bigger and the administration underestimated just how much help the nation would need.
It’s been two years Mr. President you need to come up with a stronger defense for the Restoring America legislation than that. Despite clear evidence of the stimulus saving millions of jobs and initiating major public works projects he fails to mention one bridge, one road or one lake clean-up anywhere in the country. Likely his most egregious moment however, came when he was asked about his opinion on collective bargaining rights for state employees and workers in general. Obama proceeded to spout out Republican talking points like he was a “Foxocrat” on Hannity. He talked about how private sector workers have a right to be mad that their benefits aren’t as good, and how unions need to take businesses into consideration in negotiations rather than just thinking of themselves. I bet every protester in the state of Wisconsin spat their Dunkin Donuts coffee straight at their laptops after that one.
In what was really the most substantive question of the afternoon Obama didn’t punt, he didn’t waffle, he rhetorically kicked workers in the teeth, then finished up with a milquetoast statement about ‘strongly supporting’ collective bargaining rights after trashing workers. He must’ve been doing his townhall prep with Roger Goodell. His best and face saving moment came when the president answered a question about student loans and explained how the government had eliminated the middle-man banks. The Obama administration has lowered student loan fees and reduced monthly payments to no more than 10% of your monthly income for any student loan. It was about the only thing he managed to say that sounded like Obama of 2008.
For those who are impressed with bells and whistles, and who think that young people are excited by technology baubles instead of getting serious policy proposals answered the townhall was a success. Over 40,000 questions were submitted, even though only 18 got asked and two of those were from public figures (If you’re going to let John Boehner and a NYT columnist into a townhall debate then why not just hold a press conference? This was supposed to be for regular people). But for those of use expecting a bit more yesterday’s event was a bit of a letdown. Either way Obama’s got another 18 months a few more social networking sites to work with, so I’m fully expecting a Tumblr TownHall sometime later on this fall.
This article originally appeared in TheLoop21.com under the headline “Twitter Town Hall Gets E for Effort, F for Content.”