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You could call it the iPresidency.
On Thursday President Obama sat down for an interview streamed on YouTube and the White House website, answering questions submitted by citizens on a range of topics, including jobs, the economy, health care and even drug legalization and the Super Bowl.
Obama's appearance reflected the (highly successful) 2008 campaign strategy and was part of a concerted effort by the administration to communicate directly with the public -- and perhaps lay the groundwork for the 2012 re-election bid.
Using non-traditional, digital media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Yahoo, senior administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius fanned out across the Internet to field questions and clarify policies.
But the big show was the Obama segment. Roughly 40 minutes in length, it consisted of YouTube video questions from across the country. With topics that nearly mirrored those the president discussed in his State of the Union address two nights earlier, it was evident that the appearance was a tightly edited and choreographed exercise to reiterate the administration's talking points on the economy, health care reform, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, education, immigration and other issues.
The president stressed that the White House would be focused "exclusively" on the economy and job creation in the immediate future. He highlighed his proposed 5-year freeze on discretionary spending other than for security and pledged to trim the ballooning federal budget with "a scalpel and not a chainsaw."
In line with his State of the Union speech, Obama reaffirmed a commitment to ending the war in Iraq and drawing down troops in Afghanistan beginning this July -- although he seemed to mix up the two countries in his response and did not stop to correct the mistake. He also repeated his support for the DREAM Act -- an immigration reform measure that failed in the Senate last year.
Perhaps the only question that strayed from script was one on drug legalization. According a press release from the Marijuana Policy Project, the top 100 most popular questions (193,000 were submitted to YouTube) focused on drug prohibition. For his part, President Obama called drug decriminalization an "entirely legitimate topic of debate" but said that he was "not in favor of legalization."
Obama instead spoke to drug-related violence, saying it was necessary to examine how to "shrink demand," and added that he thought more resources should be allocated to drug rehabilitation centers.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, in a briefing earlier that day, noted that the YouTube video was "a reprisal of something [the administration] had done in 2009," and described it as "an online town hall meeting." He rebuffed suggestions that it was effort to specifically court younger voters, and instead offered, "It's just another way of bringing people a little closer to the decisions that get made here and why." After all, Gibbs noted, "At 39, being on Twitter and Facebook, I don't consider myself a younger voter."
During a brief series of short-answer questions, Obama did manage to throw out some softballs for the less policy-minded -- whatever age they happened to be. Asked which team he favored for the Super Bowl, Obama revealed that he was "absolutely neutral" on the subject.
And as to what he might buy the first lady for Valentine's Day, he chuckled. "The more I'm campaigning, the more I'm president, each Valentine's Day seems to get more expensive. I've got more to make up for." Then he added, "Actually, the thing she usually wants most of all is time."
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