26 March 2009

Obama Ready for Questions From Web Visitors.

| Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama will take questions in the East Room of the White House on Thursday, but the questions won't be coming from the Washington press corps. Instead, they're being suggested by visitors to the White House Web site, and then vetted by other visitors for their relevance and importance. The questions that rise to the top of the pile will be posed to the president at 11:30 a.m. EDT, in an order based on popularity, according to administration officials. So far, questions about Obama's NCAA bracket picks are sorting toward the bottom of the pile, along with queries about what kind of dog the first family will choose.

Instead, visitors are giving high ratings to questions about the economy — the stated purpose of the town hall meeting — and the president's plans to fix it. There are some tough questions on the president's plan to save the banking industry and on financial stability in general, said Macon Phillips, director of new media for the White House.

He says the president is soliciting the "wisdom of the crowd," a phrase Phillips thinks ought to have a good connotation. "Community input can be extremely valuable," said Phillips, the Alabama native who launched the White House Web site on inauguration day. a couple of months ago. "This isn't us putting our finger in the wind and asking, 'Which way should we go?' It's us getting a snapshot from people about what's on their mind. It's a way of tapping into the collective wisdom."

The town hall meeting will take place before a live audience of local participants, who will also ask questions. In addition, other questions will be posed by video, reminiscent of the groundbreaking YouTube debate that took place during the Democratic primaries.

Jared Bernstein, of Vice President
Joe Biden's staff, will moderate for the president, who will either stand by a podium or sit on a stool – the decision hadn't been made as of late Wednesday – to field questions. It's also not clear how far down the list of selected questions the president will get, and aides were careful to point out that "many" of the most popular queries would get an airing.

Just a day after the president skipped over all of the large newspapers when taking questions at a press conference, the virtual town hall does represent a unique Obama twist on the traditional form.
But Phillips says they're definitely not trying to screen out tough questions. "The president is at his best when he's answering difficult and challenging questions," said Phillips.


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