Any More Questions? Ask Them Yourself

By Dan Froomkin
10:30 AM ET, 03/25/2009

President Obama's Whitehouse.gov is finally starting to deliver on its promise.

After seven weeks of lurching and sometimes amateurish underperformance, the Web team that vowed to harness the Internet to bring greater transparency and public access to the White House is finally showing its stuff, with the launch of Open for Questions, a "community-moderated online town hall" which allows members of the public to submit and vote on questions for Obama.

The only topic for this trial run is the economy. The president will "answer some of the most popular submissions live" on Thursday, the Web site announced vaguely.

Here is Obama's video message to netizens:

"What do yo want to know about the economy? Just go to whitehouse.gov and ask me," he says.

"Many of you are worried and have a lot of questions. And you want to know what your government is doing to get our economy back on track. You deserve those answers...

"This is an experiment, but it's also an exciting opportunity for me to look at a computer and get a snapshot of what Americans across the country care about. I'm looking forward to the results... This way I can get a sense of your concerns and give you some straight answers."

Jose Antonio Vargas blogs for The Washington Post: "It's unclear how long Obama will be online on Thursday and how many questions he will answer. But this much is clear: expect a herd of organized (and unorganized) Web users to stampede WhiteHouse.gov and make it a highly trafficked political hub over the next 48 hours."

As of this morning, the most popular question (with 1,947 votes in favor, and 526 opposed) is this one: "As a student, who like so many others works full time and attends school full time, only to break even at the end of the month. What is the government doing to make higher education more affordable for lower and middle class families?"

Another top-rated one; "What are your plans to encourage corporations to keep middle class jobs, such as customer service call centers and transactional based support services like accounting and computer program jobs, in the U.S?"

But there are also an awful lot of questions about legalizing marijuana.

It's a bold move by the White House, and hopefully just the first of many experiments in using the Internet to democratize, well, democracy. There's much more they can do, of course.

And although some of the "most popular" questions this time around may end up being the fruit of organized special-interest campaigns rather than a pure reflection of popular sentiment, over time -- as more and more people participate -- that will change.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company