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Obama engages netizens in first cyberside chat

Fri., March 27, 2009

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama seized the bully pulpit Thursday and reprised the best of his acclaimed campaign skills in an unprecedented Internet town hall from the White House – a direct sales pitch for Americans to get behind his $3.6 trillion budget and be patient as he tries to right the tottering economy.

After an opening statement and declaring, “This isn’t about me, it’s about you,” Obama took up a microphone and strolled the ornate East Room, playing to an audience of 100 invited guests and what the White House said were an estimated 67,000 people watching him in cyberspace.

The event capped a concerted Obama recent public relations foray in support of his young administration’s assault on the country’s twin crises in the economy and financial system, including two in-person town hall meetings in California and an appearance on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show.” On Tuesday Obama held a nationally televised news conference, also in the East Room, calling on an unusual mix of reporters in an apparent attempt to shake up the focus of questioning.

Obama explained he had called the first-of-its-kind online town hall meeting as an “an important step” toward creating a broader avenue for information about his administration. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said there would be more such events.

Timing, of course, was key. Obama was beamed out through cyberspace a day after the House Budget Committee adopted a spending and revenue plan that broadly matched his massive $3.6 trillion outline even while seeking to reel back on deficit projections.

In a forum that gave him an essentially passive audience, Obama said the budget would put the country on a path to “a recovery that will be measured by whether it lasts, whether it endures; by whether we build our economy on a solid foundation instead of an overheated housing market or maxed-out credit cards or the sleight of hand on Wall Street; whether we build an economy in which prosperity is broadly shared.”

Not surprisingly, the Internet questioning dovetailed with the president’s key projects: universal health care, improved education, energy independence and the range of promises made during last year’s campaign.

At times flashing his broad smile and at others determined and serious, Obama drew on his own experiences with the American health care system to empathize with one questioner who supported his goal of universal coverage.

He threw bouquets of praise to nurses who helped the family when his daughter Sasha was stricken with meningitis and returned with vigor to a recounting of the experience of watching his fatally ill mother argue with an insurance company to pay what it owed her for ovarian cancer treatment.

The president did not make news, but ran smoothly through answers to questions posed to him on the White House Web site and chosen according to rankings by respondents. A moderator read Obama some of the questions and other questions were displayed on monitors in the room.

And with more than 100,000 questions submitted for the forum, it gave the administration a significant number of e-mail addresses for future outreach and the next campaign.


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