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Obama Delivers Health Care Pitch, With a Sprinkle of People and a Dash of Digital

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, July 2 2009

The first half-hour of yesterday's 70-minute presidential health reform event at Northern Virginia Community College was given over to a pair of introduction and then opening remarks from President Barack Obama. The White House collected more than 450 video questions through YouTube in the days leading up to the event. Obama answered three of them. Not many, to be sure. But then again, a total of just eight questions on the proposed overhaul of the American health care system got asked in the hour-plus session, regardless of whether they came by video, via Twitter, or in the flesh.

Steve White of Spring Valley, New York got in the first question, via video, on why Obama isn't advocating for a single-payer system. The presidential response: "For us to transition completely from an employer-based system of private insurance to a single-payer system could be hugely disruptive." (White, it turns out, didn't watch the event. "Are you kidding me?" was his response to a reporter who told him Obama had taken his question.)The president then let his inner 85-year-old-grandpa shine through, declaring that he would talk audience questions "girl, boy, girl, boy, so that I don't get into trouble here." Girl: How am I supposed to cope with medical costs for my debilitating disease when I can't qualify for Social Security disability? Boy (with more of an example than a questions, really): Virginia hosts free rural health care days that attract 7,000 people a day.

The second of the video questions then came, this one featuring a small child on the topic of the affordability of health insurance coverage for small question owners. Then it was back to the in-person questioning, this one on how the president hopes to achieve deficit-neutral reform. Next, a sense-of-the-Internet question, as represented by a Twitter message from one "Rob": "Does it really make sense, Mr. President, to tax me on my health care coverage?" Bringing the event in for a landing were a video question from a Texas physician on the capping non-economic medical malpractice damages and an live audience question from a SEIU member on what unions can do to push the President's health care reform.

An event like yesterday's raises a nagging question. does the "online townhall" format simply break down when raised to the presidential level? The White House has offered some compelling interactivity with key staffers of late, like the earlier-mentioned session with Vivek Kundra and Macon Phillips. But when the President is the guest of honor, we've seen sessions that serve as more or less forums for him to deliver, at great length, his talking points on the issue of the day -- with little to no follow-up from the questioner. Important stuff, no doubt. But one wonders what the utility is of involving "Rob on Twitter" to get Obama on record on a much-discussed subject like his proposal to tax health care.

The White House has indicated that it will be following up on the hundreds of from-the-Internet questions not covered in the townhall, and that they'll be fielded by some of the administration's health reform experts.