The 21st century fireside chat: was it effective?

March 26, 2009


Thursday around lunchtime (which in retrospect sounds like kind of awful timing), President Obama hosted the nation’s first-ever online town hall. For days, the White House was literally open for questions. 92,925 people submitted 104,132 questions and cast 3,606,841 votes on whitehouse.gov. And they saw their most popular questions get answered: on education, universal healthcare, legalizing marijuana, outsourced jobs, and more.

The point, as Obama said at the beginning, was “to open up the White House to the American people.”

The fun thing about any political event in 2009, or 2008 for that matter, is watching all the chatter on Twitter as it happens. You have reporters being smartasses, people being really critical, and smartass reporters telling people to calm down, and other reporters responding to each other. It’s really entertaining.

But it’s interesting to me, because I wonder, how effective are all the new media things that Obama’s administration is trying? Do people like it? Do they think it sucks? or does no one really care cause we’re all cynical and think politicians suck anyways? I like watching the Twitter stream because you can try to get a gauge of what people are thinking about an event as it happens.

I thought I might try to write a “review” of the online town hall today but I realize now that that would be kind of pointless. I would just be one more of the millions of online wannabe political pundits who thinks they know everything about what Obama did right and wrong today. Well, I don’t. But what I want to know is whether people liked it, and whether it really addressed the people’s concerns and needs.

Sure, people are excited. When you do a Twitter search on “Obama” today half the results that come up are along the lines of “Watching Obama’s online town hall, he’s so cool!” I get that. Everyone’s excited about innovation. But I don’t think we should get excited about innovation just for innovation’s sake. He shouldn’t be doing it because it’s “cool.” That would be like CNN trying hologram interviews… Oh wait, they did that. And it made them the laughingstock of news networks.

My point is, what is the White House’s goal of trying all these things? It isn’t just to create a tech-savvy, “cool” personal brand for President Obama and his White House. It should have clear-cut aims. And then I want to know: did the online town hall achieve its aims? Do the people feel like they had a voice? Do they feel like their questions were answered satisfactorily? Do they feel more confident in where the economy and the country are going? Do they feel like the President is listening to them, or do we all still think he’s an out-of-touch politician?

Did you watch it? Did you like it? Do you think it was effective? Did you get bored out of your mind?

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  1. I don’t think Obama is innovating for innovation’s sake. I truly believe he is revolutionizing the way America interacts with politicians and issues for the better. When I watched him on Leno, I understood what was going on in our country. He has the ability to verbalize complicated issues in a way that I can understand. And he’s doing it in formats that I pay attention to. That’s powerful.

    • I agree that I don’t think Obama is innovating for innovation’s sake. But I think people get excited about the innovation coming from his administration. A lot of the excitement I hear is just “oh, he’s trying this new thing, he’s so cool” But I think people are getting excited about innovation because it seems cool, but I wonder if people come away from things like the Town Hall yesterday feeling better informed and more confident in the economy, or do they just come away from it thinking, “Obama is cool for trying new things”?

  2. […] I don’t think we should get excited about innovation just for innovation’s sake, […]

  3. I like what he’s doing in finding new ways to reach people, especially young people that I think can digest his message with some of the new approaches/formats, but I agree 100% with the point I think you’re trying to make it.

    It’s not cool because it’s different, innovative, or novelty. It’s cool because it makes me care a little bit more. And my favorite part about your post is the questions you asked at the end. THAT’s definitely what is important, and I’d like to think the administration is answering those questions, at least internally.

  4. I don’t think the Obama White House is innovating for innovation’s sake. I think they understand that government (especially the fed. gov’t) is a humongous hulking bureaucracy with a whole country as a client base. In my opinion, any time a politician or governing body can reach more people, more effectively and engage them in the political/governance process, you should.

    I’ve worked in gov’t offices who were not willing to try new and innovative things, and I’ve worked in gov’t offices that were. I don’t have any hard data to prove it, but I totally believe that residents in the innovative cities got better customer service, and had a better understanding of what their government does. Which is awesome.

  5. Having worked for both Obama and Axelrod, I can tell you that the entire administration is about making people feel part of something. Interacting with, giving input to and asking questions of our elected officials is about the best way to make people feel that they are actually in control of their government. The effectiveness of online town halls is up for debate but the turnout suggests people are encouraged about “belonging.” It’s about openness. I’m for whatever we can do to open up government to the people.

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