Has President Obama gone too far?
Thursday night, Mr. Obama sat for interviews with three YouTube stars – Hank Green, Bethany Mota, and, most curiously, a Hollywood comedian named GloZell Green, who goes just by her first name. She may be best known for a YouTube video of herself sloshing around in a bathtub full of milk and Froot Loops, and then eating some of the cereal. Really.
In her interview with Obama, a flustered GloZell accidentally referred to the first lady as Obama’s “first wife” when she presented him with a gift for Michelle Obama and their daughters – GloZell’s signature green lipstick. That made headlines.
“My first wife?!” Obama interjected “Do you know something I don’t?”
“Ooh, for the first lady … and the first children,” GloZell said, apologizing profusely.
“Oh, I'm teasing,” Obama said, laughing.
Predictably, conservative media are outraged that the president spent valuable time talking to YouTube stars. Media critic Howard Kurtz of Fox News called the YouTube interviews “beneath the dignity” of the presidency. The Daily Caller jumped on Obama for telling one of the other interviewers, Ms. Mota, that back in the day, politicians were behind the founding of colleges.
The Washington Times wrote that “other members of the press expressed unhappiness with Mr. Obama’s seeming dodge of the tough questions they could fire in favor of a softball sit-down, question-answer session.”
The White House had pitched the event as part of the president’s annual tradition of sitting down for media interviews after the State of the Union address, a.k.a. SOTU, which was Tuesday night. And in fact, the YouTube interviews were part of an extensive game plan of public outreach surrounding SOTU 2015 – including a series of speeches laying out new policies in the two-week runup.
The YouTube interviews were an opportunity for the president to speak directly to the people, said Kori Schulman, director of online engagement at the White House, on PBS’s "NewsHour."
“Presidents in the past have always embraced such opportunities,” William Powers of the MIT Media Lab said Thursday on "NewsHour." “Think of FDR with the fireside chats. This is a new version of that, you might say.”
And if presidents want to go where people are – especially young people – YouTube is rich with possibilities. GloZell has 3.3 million followers. The 19-year-old Mota, who gives fashion advice, has 8 million. Mr. Green’s channel, Vlogbrothers, has 2.4 million subscribers.
It’s not as if Obama got into a tub with GloZell. He wore a suit and tie, and offered serious responses on the issues of the day: Cuba, education, Boko Haram.
Not all Republicans were incensed. PBS host Judy Woodruff asked media strategist Brian Donahue, whom she described as a Republican, if the president should be doing this.
“Absolutely,” said Mr. Donahue, founder of CRAFT Media/Digital. “I mean, first of all, it’s no longer the State of the Union. It’s really #SOTU. That’s what everybody refers to it now. People following this online through Twitter, through Facebook are doing this through hashtags. And the president and his team does this extraordinarily well.”