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Talking Back to Obama's First State of the Union, via YouTube

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, January 26 2010

One big question this morning: will the President tell people to head to YouTube during his first State of the Union address?

The White House announced on the White House blog this morning that Obama's SOTU on Wednesday night will have an added dash of citizen participation, one that harkens back to the early days of the Obama administration and its experimentation with projects like its Open for Questions forum, where thumbs-up-thumbs-down technology bubbled up questions for administration officials, and an online town hall. More recently and away from home, the provocative and news generating "Great Firewall" question during Obama's town hall in Shanghai with young Chinese people in November came in through an Internet-based ask for questions.

But during Obama's first year, though, the "participation" part of the open government initiative he announced in his first full day in office has taken a back seat to work the Obama administration has done advancing efforts to increase the transparency of the presidency.

On Wednesday night, during the 9 p.m. ET speech, a special section will be opened up on YouTube where anyone and everyone so equipped can post a follow-up question to the President Obama's State of the Union address. Google Moderator is in place to collect the public's votes on the video questions. Some of the ones that bubble to the top will be taken to the White House next week by the YouTube team. Obama will answer the questions live, streamed on YouTube at a day and time to be announced later. Calling it the "State of the Union 2.0," White House new media director Macon Phillips wrote on the White House blog that, "we are excited to announce how President Obama will also be using the web to offer the public a direct and participatory way to communicate back to him."

The White House's YouTube SOTU push shares much of the spirit of the Ask the President push around White House press conferences that PdF has participated in. There's something, though, that might make YouTube follow ups to a State of the Union speech a particularly useful exercise in citizen engagement.

History has often seen American presidents using State of the Union addresses to make from the podium grand promises that lack substance, announce great-sounding policies and programs without the political plans in place to actually enact them, and otherwise make statements from the podium that pretty much demand follow up. For example, President Bush's unexpected reference to animal-human hybrids in his 2006 State of the Union comes to mind as something that was perplexing to a wide range of Americans; you can start to imagine what the YouTube questions on that particular reference may have looked like. Questions from the public could be a useful reality check on that presidential text.

Doing a YouTube component to the State of the Union potentially helps the White House out in a few ways, too. For starters, it's a way of answering complaints that Obama has lost his ability to connect with the American public over the first year of his presidency. By entertaining follow-up questions Wednesday night and through next week, it also gives the White House some hope of making the president's speech front and center for an extended period of time, and extending the focus on the substance of his text -- rather than letting all attention go to the tsunami of cable pundit commentary that will begin the very moment he wraps up his speech.

As for whether Obama makes a direct reference to YouTube in his State of the Union speech Wednesday night? Place your bets.