Questions Pour in for Obama's Online Chat
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Tens of thousands of people have submitted questions they hope to ask President Obama today at his first online town hall meeting.
Shortly after "Open for Questions," was announced early Tuesday evening -- hours after this column gave WhiteHouse.gov a C+ as its first monthly grade -- thousands headed to the site to post questions and vote the submitted questions up or down.
Some 41,300 users had submitted 42,000 questions and cast 1.5 million votes by around 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. When voting closed at 9:30 a.m., about 93,000 people had submitted a total of 104,000 questions, and cast 3.6 million votes about which of those questions should be asked.
The actual online session will begin at 11:30 a.m. and last at least one hour.
Jared Bernstein, who's written on WhiteHouse.gov's blog, has been tasked to "facilitate" the town hall, posing selected questions and even video queries to Obama. Bernstein serves as chief economic advisor to Vice President Biden.
And judging by the online tally, it's clear that the economy is on everyone's mind. Of the 11 specific topics about which users can post questions, the most popular as of 6 a.m. today were "Jobs," "Budget," and "Financial Stability."
But proving the unmistakable draw (and sheer organization) of "Mary Jane" activists, and the free-for-all nature of this enterprise, the top vote-getters aren't strictly about the ongoing economic crisis. Instead, some questioners found ways to link that topic to the issue of legalization of marijuana. Under the topic "Financial Stability," for example, a user named Anthony from Warrington, Pa., asked: "Would you support the bill currently going through the California legislation to legalize and tax marijuana, boosting the economy and reducing drug cartel related violence?" It's highly unlikely that Bernstein would post such a question to Obama.
Bernstein is probably more likely to select top vote-getters from the "Education," "Health Care Reform" and "Green Jobs and Energy" topics. But economic woes also permeate those questions. A user named "Am" from Chicago asked under "Education": ""For students graduating from college and graduate school, many of us have obscene amounts of debt. Do you have any plans to help alleviate some of that debt, given the current state of the job market?"
Obama will answer these online questions from the White House's East Room, the same spot where on Tuesday he held the second prime-time news conference of his presidency. The location signals the importance that Obama and his new media team place on this online town hall.
Yet, for all the talk of how this Web-savvy new president plans to use the Internet to bring more transparency and accessibility to the White House -- a task that's very different from campaigning, as Macon Phillips, the White House new media director has pointed out -- today is not the first time that a sitting president has conducted an interactive chat through WhiteHouse.gov. An online feature called "Ask the White House" was born during the second half of the Clinton presidency and continued during President Bush's tenure.
Posted at 7:06 AM ET on Mar 26, 2009
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