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#AskObama: How'd That Go? [UPDATED]

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, July 6 2011

Today's Twitter event with President Barack Obama highlighted the White House's ongoing struggle to be engaging, stay on message, and not be, well, boring.

Many were unsatisfied by his town hall-style event, in which Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey read questions aloud to him that were submitted via Twitter and chosen through a complicated process of hand-picking and algorithmic sorting that no one seems to fully understand. The Nation's Ari Melber called it "still a pretty low bar for online civic participation." Over at RedState, Tabitha Hale summed up some fairly bipartisan unease at a list of questioners that included the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof and House Speaker John Boehner — not exactly the "little people," was her point. The questions were also "pretty standard," notes The New York Times' Caucus blog writer Michael Shear. So too, by the way, were the answers, many of which sounded familiar to anyone who has ever heard Obama deliver an economy-related talking point.

Despite the multitude of things to point to as evidence that the White House has the 21st century figured wrong, there were also signs today that the White House is learning as it goes. It's worth noting that the event raised some 40,000 questions and over 110,000 individual Twitter messages. And Obama did have a glimmer of genuine interaction with real people, especially during a segment of the town hall devoted to parsing answers to a question he had posed via Twitter at the start of the event.

It says something, I think, that some Americans were given as much a chance to sit in the East Wing with the president, observe, and report, as the press-qua-press — and that they were encouraged to document what they saw on Twitter. The event was viewed through many lenses rather than just those of the White House's video feed and those of a few TV networks. Our Becky Kazansky will have more on how it looked from her perspective — she was in the room — later.

Conversely, it's also easy to point out that many in the audience seemed starstruck by the president. There was certainly a golden-ticket feel to allowing 140 people in for the event, and giving 30 of those a special after-event with White House new media staff. The #WHTweetup hashtag, used by people at the event, was full of tweets expressing awe at being in the same room as Obama and gratitude for being invited to the event.

The question selection process didn't even sit well with everyone on the eight-person team of curators asked to help cull questions for the event, though.

Here's a look at a few of their reactions:

As Obama's talking-points-rich remarks lumbered towards their conclusion, though, something interesting happened: Among the answers he solicited was one that seemed to catch him at a loss for words.

"I’d cut costs by cutting some welfare programs," one Twitter user wrote. "People will never try harder when they are handed everything."

Obama hemmed and hawed. Then he gave a typically loquacious but seemingly unscripted answer, one that served as a conclusion for the event.

"You and I are sitting here because somebody, somewhere, made an investment in our futures," he said at the end of his remarks, according to a White House transcript of the event. "We’ve got the same obligation for the folks who are coming up behind us. We’ve got to make sure that we’re looking out for them, just like the previous generations looked out for us. And that’s what I think will help us get through what are some difficult times and make sure that America’s future is even brighter than the past."

An entirely unscripted conversation with the president is, it seems, still too much to hope for at present. But as the White House gains a better understanding of engagement online and how it works, perhaps moments like these will become more frequent.

This post has been updated.

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