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Novel Forum, Familiar Questions

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, February 1 2010

Years back, when I bought a house, someone gave me a piece of advice. Though I don't remember exactly who it was, I remember the guidance well. Don't pick a paint color by committee. You'll end up with a shade that doesn't particularly appeal to anyone.

I'm reminded of that today having just finished watching the White House's Open for Questions session where questions came in for the President through YouTube and Google Moderator. It's not a perfect fit. Some of the questions were very appealing to the people who submitted them. But while the project was intriguing, innovative, and exciting in concept, in execution it turned out that very few of the questions-via-YouTube got at topics that Obama hasn't addressed, repeatedly, in some other venue. The biggest winners today, perhaps, were the advocacy groups who got their questions into the dozen or so ones asked by YouTube news and politics editor Steve Grove to Obama.

There was a brief flurry of excitement when one of the early questions appeared to ask a question about hemp. But it turned out, in the end, that he was talking about HAMP -- HUD's Home Affordable Modification Program.

Perhaps that's too severe a judgment. There's value in having citizens get a chance to question the president, no matter what the questions. There's an audience out there that might never watch a boring think tank speech by the President on C-SPAN but will dedicate a piece of its afternoon to checking out what Obama has to say on Facebook. And there were questions here and there that elicited some slightly intriguing responses from Obama. Asked about passing health care, Obama repeated a congressional Democrats' talking point of late. "You've got to have 60 votes for everything," which will probably give some groups on the left ammunition as they try to push Democrats to be more nimble in their legislative maneuvering.

But again and again, the questions put to Obama by Grove in the forty-minute session -- voted to the top from some 11,700 questions -- were on topics that Obama has been on the record for, often for quite some time and in some detail. Two video questions, for example, took Obama to task for not broadcasting health care negotiations on C-SPAN, a campaign promise that Obama has admitted he's fallen short of. Obama offered the standard context the White House deploys in such matters. "We have been certified by independent groups," said the President, correctly, "as the most transparent White House in history." But he repeated something we've heard in recent weeks, including in last week's considerably more exciting session between Obama and the House GOP. "I think it's a fair criticism," said Obama. "I've acknowledged that." He has.

How do you plan to help small businesses grow? Tax breaks, said Obama, and working to free up credit so that small businesses have the investment they need to prosper.

How do you reduce troop levels while at the very same time keeping up a fight against terrorists? Keep focus on the enemy, said Obama.

Why is it taking so long to close Guantanamo? We've got to figure out where to put them.

How do you feel about the high cost of college tuition? "Just crushing for a lot of folks."

Again, advocacy groups seized the moment to organize efforts to push their questions into the final batch taken to the White House by YouTube's Grove. Obama reiterated his commitment to net neutrality. (Perhaps most encouraging to advocates: he got right away that a question about the "open Internet" was in fact targeted dead center on the neutrality question.) Activists working on Sudan issues got a lengthy response from Obama, and may have even extracted a bit of new news with his comments on southern Sudan's recent moves to secede from the north. A fairly hard-hitting question on Obama's recent statements in support of nuclear and coal-based energy came from clean energy advocates. Obama found common ground by agreeing with them on part of their premise. "You're not going to get any argument from me about the need to create clean energy jobs."

Grove took another tactic: a lightening round. That's doesn't exactly seem to be Obama's natural format. A question on privatizing public services, including the post office, got a quick "bad idea most of the time," from the President. A quick hit on solar panels on government buildings was judged to be a very good idea, which Obama explicated in a very lengthy response.

Grove wrapped by thanking Obama for participating in this novel experiment. We can hope that, given an openness to trying these new ways to engage on the part of the White House, we, as citizen-questioners, can only get better at the job, and the tools can only evolve to pick out questions that elicit something newer, something deeper, more compelling. Obama's game -- even if he didn't quite get the technical nuances of the exciting experiment in which he was participating. "You know, this was terrific," he said to Grove. "I just want to thank everyone who submitted questions over email or the Internet." He continued. "Even if you didn't make your questions, even if it wasn't on this show, we appreciate your submission, and hopefully we'll catch you next time."