Going online with Obama: Will he play fair?

White House screenshot
President Obama will take questions from the public today in an online town hall meeting called, "Open for Questions"

Harnessing the Internet to empower citizens is what government should do.

So the announcement that President Obama will answer questions from the public in an online video town hall today is good news.

A skeptic might be forgiven for being suspicious, since it is all too easy for White House press aides to pick and choose from the questions and relay softballs to the President.

I speak from experience on this topic. As the Internet director for President George W. Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, I created similar online forums. "Ask the White House" for President Bush. And the creatively titled, "Ask the Governor" for Governor Schwarzenegger.

President Obama's "Open for Questions" is an improvement to both. It's not perfect, but it's an improvement.

Here's why...


"Ask the White House" was great for its time. For more than five years, cabinet secretaries, senior White House officials, and appointees throughout the administration answered emails from the public in a live, online chat setting on average of three times per week.

It wasn't a video Q & A like the one Obama will be participating in today. But it's the same concept. Live. Real time. Emails from the public. Answers from the guest.

The big difference is that the White House controlled the event. The host got to choose the questions. White House officials were always encouraged to take the tougher questions -- and they did. But, still, the choice was in the hands of White House aides.


Governor Schwarzenegger raised the bar. When "Ask the Governor" began in 2006, he did what President Obama will do today. He sat in front of the cameras answering questions from the public that were emailed in. Live video. Real time.

Reporters moderated. They could select any question that came in. To make it even more legitimate the reporter had the option of dismissing the emails entirely and asking whatever he or she wanted.

For communications professionals, this was risky ground -- losing control of the message. Schwarzenegger, however, could hold his own.

More transparency

What makes "Open for Questions" promising is its apparent transparency. Not only can you submit your own question, but you can see the other questions submitted. And you can vote on what questions are best.

That means that if you can organize a group of people to all vote on your question, it will rise to the top.

It's not perfect. The interface is clunky. It only allows you to see 10 questions at a time instead of sorting through many like you would see on Digg. And when you are talking about 90,000+ questions, this doesn't work.

But because there is more transparency, it holds the White House more accountable. It wouldn't be wise to bypass the popular questions.

Sure, a legion of Obama supporters could all sign up and vote on the questions the administration would most want to answer. But nothing would stop opponents of the president from doing the same thing.

It's an online get-out-the-vote.


One problem: The moderator leaves something to be desired. Nothing against Joe Biden's chief of staff, but he's internal. He's going to select the questions. It would be better if the White House brought in Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews to moderate (think of the entertainment value too).

Again, the White House will get a lot of heat if Obama selects all softballs. And they'll never cover the event again. As time went by, "Ask the White House" generated less and less coverage.


We'll see which ones are selected. Right now, two of the three top questions are about legalizing drugs. Phil asks:

"President Obama, Do you plan on letting Science end the failed "War" on Marijuana for personal and medical use thus taking the strain off our prisons and police forces so that we no longer have to arrest over 800,000 non violent drug offenders?"

The town hall gets underway at 11:30am (ET).  To participate, click here.


While you're at it, click here to follow us on Twitter!

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