Obama’s Useless Twitter Town Hall

Too-long answers, questions from familiar foes, not regular folks—all with an annoying Twitter middleman.

Brand new format, same old answers. Reams of hype, most of it delivered in 140-character chunks, couldn’t make President Obama’s Twitter town hall on Wednesday as exciting as promised.

The hour-long event proved to be even less interesting than the average town hall. Just like Obama’s April 19 town hall with Mark Zuckerberg, the event featured the president facing a younger entrepreneur; this time, however, there was the added annoyance of Twitter as simplifying middleman.

It all started off well enough. After brief remarks by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, the president ambled in, stepped up to a laptop adorned with a presidential seal, and typed his own question for the audience: “in order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep—bo.” Then he settled in to answer questions for him, and that’s when things got dull.

Where did things go wrong? The first problem was the president’s own apparent obliviousness to the format (despite the news that he’s started tweeting for himself). Although he made a good-natured joke about speaking for too long, in his answers, he hewed closely to the same talking points he’s used in previous settings, from press conferences to town halls: lengthy, professorial disquisitions, often prefaced with his favorite starter, “Look.” In total, he averaged 2,099 characters per response, according to an analysis by Michael Shear.

Take the first question, from Twitter user @conblog: “What mistakes have you made in handling this recession and what would you do differently?” It’s a question Obama’s been asked before, and he took a well-worn tack, saying he hadn’t realized how bad the recession was, blaming that on economists’ failure to recognize the dangers, and so on. Here’s how his full answer began:

“That’s a terrific question. When I first came into office we were facing the worst recession since the Great Depression. So, looking around this room, it’s a pretty young room—it’s certainly the worst recession that we’ve faced in our lifetimes. And we had to act quickly and make some bold and sometimes difficult decisions.”

And then it stretched on for another 365 words, for a total of 2,313 characters—or 17 tweets. Got all that? Now here’s how a White House staffer tasked with distilling the answers to tweet shortened that: “Obama on what he’d have done dif. on economy: Explain more fully depth of recession, prepare people for tough decisions, better on housing.” It’s not a bad summary, but it hardly adds much to our understanding of Obama’s response.

Elsewhere, the summaries didn’t work as well. A user asked the president what the administration was doing for homeowners who were able to make payments on their mortgages but were still deeply under water. He gave another detailed answer, explaining the history of White House programs on housing, expressing his regret that housing hadn’t recovered more quickly, and describing negotiations with lenders about reducing the principal and payments on existing mortgages. The summary? A terse “Obama on homeowners under water: Have made some progress, but more needed, looking at options.” In Twitter talk, it was a #fail.

Another problem transcended the format. Of the 17 questions asked, a tiny portion of the nearly 170,000 total tweets labeled with the #AskObama tag, three came from Speaker John Boehner; New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof; and Modeled Behavior, a well-known economics group blog that was one of the several users assigned to moderate the tweets streaming in. It’s not that their questions were bad. Boehner’s question was rather pointed, and seemed to get under Obama’s skin: “After embarking on a record spending binge that’s left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?” Interestingly, it echoed a question tweeted by the AFL-CIO, typically a staunch Democratic ally.

The problem is that the town hall was pitched—as these events often are—as an opportunity for the public to communicate directly with the president. So why feature questions from a highly placed columnist, or from a politician who interacts with Obama frequently? The moderators could have chosen, for example, to feature a tweet from another Republican, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, criticizing the administration’s handling of a dispute between Boeing and the National Labor Relations Board—but they didn’t.

Beyond that, Obama showed he can dodge the public’s questions every bit as effectively as he can reporters’. Early on, user _RenegadeNerd_ asked a very specific question about a dispute over whether the national debt ceiling is unconstitutional. It was similar to a question Obama received during a press conference on June 29, and he once again refused to address it. “I don’t think we should even get to the constitutional issue. Congress has a responsibility to make sure we pay our bills,” he said, adding that he expected that a deal would be hammered out before the late July deadline he’s set. The president only seemed to get agitated once near the end, while asked about the effect of tax increases. Adopting a more conversational but polemic tone, he snipped, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

This isn’t to say that the whole thing was totally worthless, despite the lack of obvious news from it. Dorsey, moderating in person from the White House, asked the president a question about education costs in addition to the housing question, and mentioned that those two topics accounted for 10 percent and 6 percent of the tweets coming in, respectively. Given the general absence of housing and education from headlines, a public forum like this shows where the press isn’t quite aligned with the concerns of the people—or at least Twitter users.

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In general, however, the Twitter town hall was a useful etymological lesson: You can bill such town halls as an opportunity to communicate directly with the president, but it’s important to remember that Twitter, like television or print, is just another medium.