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.

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