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Obama's First High-Tech Town Hall

By Dan Froomkin
1:28 PM ET, 03/26/2009


Obama's Internet town hall today. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

The White House's first online town hall mined the discontents of a nation upset about schools, worried about mortgages and college costs, despairing over lost jobs, eager for universal health care -- and, oh yes, yearning for the legalization of marijuana.

Okay, the marijuana question was a good example of the downsides of Internet voting. But overall, I would say that this experiment was a roaring success.

Obama answered seven questions posed by -- and voted up or down by -- Internet users. Some 92,000 people submitted 104,000 questions and cast 3.6 million votes.

The questions tended to take a longer view than those raised by reporters at Tuesday's press conference. But like the other town hall meetings Obama has held, this one may have been less about answering the questions and more about turning Washington's attention to what's troubling the rest of the country.

The first question Obama answered was about our "woefully inadequate" educational system. Another question was about getting help with mortgage payments. Another was a plea for a single-payer health care system.

And then there was the marijuana question. Credit Obama with bowing to the vicissitudes of the Internet and addressing an issue that is obviously not high on the national agenda (pun intended). Several marijuana questions were among the most popular in the voting, including the top vote-getter. Obama, calling it a "fairly popular" question, summarized it mockingly as asking "whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation."

"I don't know what this says about the online audience," Obama said. "The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."

(The full question, by the way, from a Ryan Palmer of Dallas, was: "With over 1 out of 30 Americans controlled by the penal system, why not legalize, control, and tax marijuana to change the failed war on drugs into a money making, money saving boost to the economy? Do we really need that many victimless criminals?" Tech President has a list the top questions in each subcategory.)

And, for the record, the question about jobs -- "When can we expect the jobs that have been outsourced to other countries to come back to be made available to the unemployed workers here in the United States?" from Harriet in George -- only got three votes, but was evidently chosen because it came with a YouTube video -- and reflected a common concern.

Obama's responses were long, lucid and not particularly memorable. In fact, in answer to a question about helping the auto industry from his live audience -- which included teachers, nurses, small business owners and community leaders -- the president explicitly opted not to make news, saying he would make some announcements on that subject soon.

Obama took a question from Richard from San Diego: "Why can we not have a universal health care system like many European countries, where people are treated based on needs, rather than financial resources?"

"I actually want a universal health care system," Obama replied. "That is our goal. I think we should be able to provide health insurance to every American that they can afford and that provides them high quality."

And while he spoke highly of the system in Canada or the United Kingdom, where tax dollars pay for automatic universal coverage, he said that wouldn't be a good fit for America. "The problem is, is that we have what's called the legacy set of institutions that aren't that easily transformed," he said.

Employer-sponsored health care "may not be the best system if we were designing it from scratch, but that's what everybody's accustomed to, that's what everybody's used to. It works for a lot of Americans. And so I don't think the best way to fix our health care system is to suddenly completely scrap what everybody is accustomed to and the vast majority of people already have. Rather what I think we should do is to build on the system that we have and fill some of these gaps. And I'm looking to Congress to work with me to find that optimal system."

Obama's liveliest response may have come in response to a teacher's question about how he defined effectiveness. After talking about the steps he's propose to help teachers improve, he confronted the questioner by daring her to deny knowing teachers whose classrooms she would not put her child in.

In fact, another of the takeaways from today's session is that, for better or worse, our president can talk at length about almost anything, including federal procurement. "Thanks for paying attention," he said at the end.

Some Alternate Questions for Obama

By Dan Froomkin
11:45 AM ET, 03/26/2009

While you're watching President Obama's unprecedented "online town hall," (which started at 11:30 a.m. ET), compare the questions being asked to the "Beltway Elite-approved questions" suggested yesterday by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas:

" * Why are you so boring? How about cracking some jokes?

" * Don't you realize how inappropriate it is when you crack jokes?...

" * Why are you talking to us and not the NY Times, Washington Post, WSJ or USA Today?

" * Aren't you exhausted from walking and chewing gum at the same time?

" * Where were you really born, you impostor?

" * Why are you the first and only politician to ever use a teleprompter?

" * I've lost my job, my home, my business, and all hope. How else can I sacrifice to make Chuck Todd and his elite media friends happy?

" * Enough about A-Rod! What do you think about Lance Armstrong's broken collarbone?"

Obama on Washington, Washington on Obama

By Dan Froomkin
11:40 AM ET, 03/26/2009

From President Obama's remarks last night at a Democratic fundraiser at the Warner Theater:

"Every once in a while we like to get out of this town. (Laughter.) Not because I don't enjoy Washington, but because it is important to get out of the hall of mirrors here -- (laughter) -- and listen to what's happening with the American people The same concerns that I read about -- I've taken the habit of reading a sampling of letters that are sent to the White House every single night, just to remind myself of why we worked so hard and why we are here. All of these letters, all of these comments and questions I get at town halls, they ask the same question: What are you going to do in Washington to -- to not give us a hand out, but give us a hand up; to help us figure out how we can manage through these difficult times? We are willing to work hard, we are willing to take our responsibilities seriously; we just want to make sure that our families have their chance at the American Dream.

"[O]ver the past two months, we’ve been working to answer that question with a comprehensive strategy to attack the crisis on all fronts. And I know that in Washington sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day cable chatter, and be distracted by the petty and the trivial, and everybody is keeping score -- are they up, are they down? You know, one day I'm a genius; one day I'm a bum. (Laughter.) Every day there's a new winner, a new loser....

"So what we understand is there are going to be days where things don't go exactly the way we planned, and days where things go smoothly. There are going to be days where the market goes up, and days where the market goes down. But that's not how we measure success. We measure economic recovery in a different way. And we're seeing progress all across America -- because we measure recovery by how many Americans can bring home a paycheck that helps them make ends meet....

"We measure recovery whether -- by whether families can keep their own piece of the American Dream."

And is "We can't wait" the new "Yes we can"?

Obama: "Now, let me just say that there are those who say, you know, you're taking on too much; say the budget is too ambitious, we should only focus on one problem at a time."

Audience: "Nooo!"

Obama: "But we know -- we're smarter than that. (Applause.) We know the challenges are too big to ignore. That single mom out there trying to figure out whether she can have health care for her family -- she doesn't think -- "

Audience Member: "She can't wait."

Obama: "She cannot wait. (Applause.) I'm not going to wait until we've got another $4-a-gallon gasoline before suddenly everybody says, why don't we have an energy policy? We can't wait. (Applause.) I'm not going to wait until suddenly we find out that our children can't compete for the jobs of the future. That's why we're going to fix education now, not later. We can't wait. (Applause.)"

Meanwhile, Dan Balz wonders on washingtonpost.com: "Will slow and steady win the race?"

Balz writes: "It might be too much to call him the plodding president. But there is a distinct clash between the culture of cable, which demands instant action from and renders instant judgments on politicians, and the style of the new president, which is to try mightily to resist succumbing to those pressures.

"It's easy to think of this president as the embodiment of the Internet age. His campaign skillfully exploited new media to build a nationwide network of donors, volunteers and advocates. This is the president who demanded that he keep his BlackBerry, which is symbolic of the always-on, always-connected culture that accelerated the flow of information.

"But he learned from his campaign that the velocity of information can instantly change the conventional wisdom, for better or worse, and that there is no more to be gained from trying to anticipate those shifts than from trying to time the market....

"Obama's press conference was a reminder that he hopes to operate on a different clock than the 24/7 media culture that surrounds him and his advisers. Part of that is strategic, an effort to buy time. He has said from the moment he was elected that it would take a long time to fix the problems of the economy and repeated that in his opening statement on Tuesday night. 'It will take many months and many different solutions to lead us out,' he said. 'There are no quick fixes and there are no silver bullets.'...

"Whether things are truly moving in the right direction -- and whether, if they are, it is thanks to his policies or other, larger forces at work in the economy -- are questions that can't yet be answered. Obama's message Tuesday was interpreted as 'trust us and give us time' -- but what he really seemed to be saying was, 'I trust myself.'"

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:30 AM ET, 03/26/2009

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III urged lawmakers yesterday to renew intelligence-gathering measures in the USA Patriot Act that are set to expire in December, calling them 'exceptional' tools to help protect national security....The ACLU issued a report this month describing 'widespread abuse' of government authority under the Patriot Act."

David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times: "The Obama administration is moving to solidify one of the most significant shifts of resources put into place under President George W. Bush: the transformation of the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation into agencies where the top priority is counterterrorism rather than conventional law enforcement....The administration’s position underscores the extent to which Mr. Obama’s legal team has found itself following many of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies, even as Mr. Holder has asserted that the Justice Department will differ markedly by being more respectful of civil liberties and constitutional limits....Several current and former F.B.I. officials have said privately that while they believe Al Qaeda still hopes to strike inside the United States, those aspirations have not evolved into serious plots. A result, they said, is that too many agents are chasing too few credible leads."

Christine Kearney writes for Reuters: "A lawyer arguing on behalf of the Obama administration on Tuesday echoed Bush administration policies to back a decision to deny one of Europe's leading Muslim intellectuals entry to the United States."

Binyamin Appelbaum and David Cho write for The Washington Post: "Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner is proposing a sweeping expansion of federal authority over the financial system...In essence, the plan is a rebuke of raw capitalism and a reassertion that regulation is critical to the healthy function of financial markets and the steady flow of money to borrowers."

Roger Cohen writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Pressure on President Obama to recast the failed American approach to Israel-Palestine is building from former senior officials whose counsel he respects." He writes that a group of "foreign policy mandarins have concluded a 'Bipartisan Statement on U.S. Middle East Peacemaking' that should become an essential template."

Anna Marie de la Fuente writes for Variety: "With Mexico in the headlines of late, President Obama will talk directly to a massive Hispanic aud when he makes an historic appearance on 'Premio Lo Nuestro,' Univision’s longest-running and most popular music awards show on Thursday....His bilingual videotaped message of hope and civic engagement on the music event 'demonstrates the continued growth and influence of Hispanics in this country and the importance of speaking to them directly,' said a delighted Joe Uva, Univision’s CEO."

James Martinez writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama was compared favorably to Alexander the Great on Wednesday during a White House reception honoring Greek Independence Day, with the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in America saying the president should follow the example of the ancient military conqueror to help solve some of Greece's problems."

CBS News Producer Frank Devine compares two "60 Minutes" interviews with Obama -- one in 2007 and one last week -- and concludes: "What hasn't seemed to change is Barack Obama. His manner has remained the same. He seemed as relaxed and confident with Steve [Kroft] last Friday at the White House as he had two years ago at his own house. He still has a way of engaging you while simultaneously observing the scene as if from afar. It's a kind of detachment that is common among writers. Even in hard times and with new responsibilities, he still enjoys the give-and-take, the opportunity to take questions and wrestle with them, before giving often long, often detailed answers. He genuinely seems to enjoy sparring with Steve. He has no idea what's coming next and seems intellectually engaged by the more challenging questions."

Rachel L. Swarns write in the New York Times about the many Obama sightings around Washington: "No other modern president has reached out so widely to so many corners of the city, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian. That is no surprise to friends of the first family. The Obamas, after all, are city people, former community organizers who have long felt at home in the urban landscape."

Want to know what's growing in the White House's new vegetable (and fruit) garden? Ariel Schwartz blogs for Fast Company that "web-based vegetable-garden design application Plangarden has released an interactive version of the Obama garden for anyone who can't make it to Washington for a first-hand look."

Obama's Brave Partners on the Hill

By Dan Froomkin
11:05 AM ET, 03/26/2009

So far, Congress's great contribution to President Obama's ambitious budget blueprint mostly consists of reducing deficit projections by using some of the same accounting tricks that the administration was (justifiably) proud of itself for having purged from its plan.

It's not exactly "profiles in courage" time over there on the Hill.

Talking about Congressional action on his budget plan, Obama told reporters Tuesday night: "Now, we never expected, when we printed out our budget, that they would simply Xerox it and vote on it. We assume that it has to go through the legislative process."

If by "legislative process" he meant "smoke and mirrors" he was about right.

From what I can tell, the Senate version of his budget plan achieves "deficit reduction" primarily by putting off some tough decisions -- and by pretending there's no need to fix the alternative minimum tax.

The AMT, intended to insure that the very wealthy not escape paying a minimal amount of taxes, is increasingly snaring the upper middle class. Assuming that there's no fix is a convenient way to add billions of additional dollars to budget projections -- thereby shrinking the projected deficit. But it's blatantly dishonest because a de facto massive tax increase on the upper middle class is a political nonstarter. Team Obama took the high road in factoring a fix into their projections. The Senate, not so much.

And much of the "savings" in the House version come from simply deleting a $250 billion placeholder the White House put in the budget, in case the Treasury Department needs to spend more on its financial-sector bailout. Deleting the line in the budget does reduce deficit projections -- but it doesn't change reality.

Nevertheless, the White House was expressing delight yesterday over the Congressional action, because -- well, because so much of it was, essentially, a Xerox.

White House budget director Peter Orszag told reporters yesterday: "[W]e are very pleased that the House and Senate Budget Committees are taking up resolutions that are fully in line with the President's key priorities for the budget. Not only do they embody the four key principles that the President has put forward for the budget, but they are 98 percent the same as the budget proposal the President sent up in February....

"The resolutions may not be identical twins to what the President submitted, but they are certainly brothers that look an awful lot alike."

Carl Hulse and David M. Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "Despite some apprehension among centrist Senate Democrats about the level of spending and future deficits, Mr. Obama’s appeal seemed to find a receptive audience. Democratic senators indicated increasing optimism about the prospects for approval of the fiscal blueprint after they pared spending and made other adjustments....

"Democrats said they shared Mr. Obama’s priorities.

"'His major objectives — green jobs, climate change-global warming, health care reform — that’s not just his agenda, that’s our agenda,' said Senator Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, who is part of a new group of moderate Democrats seeking to champion fiscal restraint."

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post about Obama's trip to Capitol Hill yesterday to rally support. "Centrist Democrats who have complained that Obama's spending plan would drive the annual budget deficit to unacceptable levels held their tongues during the 45-minute lunchtime meeting. They asked no questions about deficits or about the administration's controversial push to force its signature investments in health care and education through the Senate without Republican votes."

Shailagh Murray blogs for The Washington Post that Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) "has pressed back into service some Bush-era budget maneuvers that Obama wants to eliminate." Here's another one, in addition to the AMT scam: "Instead of a 10-year budget that shows deficits steadily accumulating, for example, Conrad is proposing a five-year spending plan."

As Andrew Taylor explains for the Associated Press: "Under Congress' arcane budget legislative process, lawmakers devise a nonbinding budget resolution that sets the terms for subsequent legislation. As a practical matter, the budget provides a pot of money to the appropriations panels to fund Cabinet agencies' annual budgets. But it also serves as a way to define party goals."

To the extent that the resolution punts on several tough decisions, Obama is still expected to run into some serious obstruction on the Hill down the road. Chris Cillizza blogs for The Washington Post about "the key generals in Congress who will decide the ultimate fate of the bill." It's a motley bunch on both sides of the aisle.

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times about some of the tensions to come: "As he presses Congress to keep his ambitious agenda intact, Mr. Obama is navigating multiple constituencies within his party. Centrist Democrats in the Senate are trying to organize into a muscular bloc that is already putting its stamp on the president’s $3.6 trillion budget.

"At the same time, liberal groups, with tacit encouragement from the White House, are pushing back, trying to keep Mr. Obama’s core domestic initiatives — on health care, climate change and education — from being watered down in the legislative process."

Jay Newton-Small writes for Time: "The House bill includes a controversial provision for so-called reconciliation - which would leave the door open to piggyback massive programs like universal health care on the budget in case they fail to make it through the regular legislative process. House Democrats and the Administration support such a move specifically for health care — though, theoretically, the provision would allow for anything, including energy, to be pushed through the Senate with just a simple majority rather than a filibuster proof 60 votes. Several moderate Democratic senators, including Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, have said that inclusion of reconciliation instructions in the final bill would be a deal breaker for them."

In his talk with reporters, Orszag said "reconciliation is not where we'd like to start, but we are not willing to take it off the table."

Meanwhile, Philip Rucker writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama defends his proposal to cut the tax deductions that wealthy Americans can claim for their charitable donations by arguing that the shift would not have an adverse effect on giving, but two independent analyses concluded that the proposal could result in a drop of as much as $3.87 billion for the already reeling nonprofit sector....

"But a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said total charitable contributions would decline by about 1.3 percent, while the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University calculated that overall giving would drop by 2.1 percent. The highest-income households would decrease their giving by 4.8 percent, or $3.87 billion, the latter group found."

Read those reports, however, and the tone is a bit different.

The Center on Philanthropy concludes: "The Obama Administration's proposals to reduce the tax deduction high income taxpayers can take for charitable gifts and to increase the top personal income tax rate, would, by themselves, have a relatively small negative effect on itemized charitable giving."

And the CBPP says: "President Obama’s proposal to limit the tax deduction for charitable contributions would affect only the top 1.2 percent of affluent U.S. households and, despite claims to the contrary, would reduce total charitable contributions by only 1.3 percent."

Rucker notes: "Administration officials said the proposal should be considered within the totality of the budget. The policy change would help finance efforts to reform the nation's health-care system, said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for budget director Peter Orszag."

And what about those brave members of Congress? "In Congress, members of both parties have spoken out against Obama's proposal since it was introduced last month."

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The debate on the budget is phony, the howling on deficits a charade. Few politicians want to acknowledge that if you really are concerned about long-term deficits, you have to support tax increases."

And Alice M. Rivlin, in a Washington Post op-ed, has a few suggestions about where to start.

Easter Egg Roll Update

By Dan Froomkin
10:05 AM ET, 03/26/2009

Tickets for the White House's world-famous Easter Egg Roll -- being distributed online this year, for the first time -- will be available at various times throughout the day here.

Twitterers are reporting only modest success getting through the overwhelmed servers at Front Gate tickets.

I still remember the Easter Egg Roll from when I went as a kid. What fun. So keep trying.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:47 AM ET, 03/26/2009

Pat Oliphant and Greg Mitchell on those helpful Republicans, Steve Sack and Bob Gorrell on the financial rescue plan, Chip Bok on change, David Fitzsimmons on Obama's moods, Bruce Plante on the Obama critiques, Matt Wuerker on the Blue Dogs, John Cole on the White House garden and Stuart Carlson on Cheney.

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