“We’re actually going to have some live stuff,” explained President Obama, “instead of some virtual stuff.”
On that plucky note, Obama essentially ended the first open, democratically operated virtual town hall in White House history, turning his attention to a small crowd assembled in the East Room. Thursday’s town hall drew swift and divergent reactions, but few observers noted how the gathering actually contained two completely distinct events.
The “live stuff,” to use the president’s taxonomy, was an entirely routine presidential meet-and-greet with supporters. Five questions were chosen randomly, but they were all drawn from a screened pool of friendly faces. One questioner was invited by the DNC; another by a union that endorsed Obama; another said that he served on Obama’s education-platform committee. And so on. For such guests, these kind of events are usually seducing or intimidating–earnest people can easily become props.
There was a second event in the East Room, however, just before those invited guests asked their questions. Six random people–who had not been vetted and had no idea that the questions that they calmly posed at home would reach the president–suddenly found their voices amplified in Washington. Not because they were handpicked for a White House event, or because they finagled tickets to a rare presidential visit, but because their questions drew thousands of votes from fellow citizens. The “virtual stuff” did not stop at empowering only those six voices, either.
“Open for Questions,” an innovative, potentially combustible experiment with interactive government, sparked a rolling, two-day national debate about the economic issues facing the nation. Over 92,000 people generated roughly 100,000 questions. The depth of participation was staggering: visitors voted for over twenty-five questions on average, suggesting participants wanted to listen to each other, not simply be heard. People even debated the administration’s attempt to define the category of the “economy,” rallying behind questions criticizing the war on drugs by casting it as an economic issue.
While the town hall did not break major “news,” in the conventional sense, it clearly operated on a wider axis than traditional White House events.
Take healthcare, for example. The administration only talks about employer-based reforms, and so far, the Washington press corps has accepted those boundaries. In the president’s first two press conferences, there was not a single question on popular proposals for single-payer healthcare. Many citizens, however, are still wondering if the United States will adopt “a universal healthcare system, like many European countries,” as a Californian named Richard wrote, in what became the most popular health care question on WhiteHouse.gov. (A single-payer query was also one of the most popular questions according to citizen votes at Ask The President, a similar, independent portal backed by The Nation, the Washington Times and Personal Democracy Forum.) In response, Obama argued that the United States can pursue universal healthcare without abandoning employer-based healthcare. “I don’t think the best way to fix our healthcare system is to suddenly completely scrap what everybody is accustomed to,” he said, “and the vast majority of people already have [employer healthcare].”