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With Online Public Engagement, White House Follows West Wing Playbook

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, January 30 2014

Science and Technology Adviser John Holdren (Twitter/OSTP)

On The West Wing, on the day known as Big Block of Cheese Day, White House staffers met with advocates for more White House attention on UFOs, supporters of a wolves-only highway and map makers for social equality. As Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, played by John Spencer, explained in the episodes, the inspiration for the tradition that he brought to the Bartlet White House came from President Andrew Jackson, who received a 1,400 pound block of cheese as a gift from a New York dairy farmer, left it in the White House entrance hall to age for two years, and then invited the public to come and eat it.

"It is in the spirit of Andrew Jackson that I, from time to time, ask senior staff to have face-to-face meetings with those people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention," Leo tells his staff in an episode of the West Wing's first season.

Yesterday, the real Obama White House drew inspiration from The West Wing and Andrew Jackson to bring the tradition into the 21st century with its Virtual Big Block of Cheese Day, with White House administration members and staff answering questions from the public on social media throughout the day after the State of the Union. The White House had announced the Friday afternoon with a video featuring Press Secretary Jay Carney and West Wing actors Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina.

It was perhaps fitting that the virtual event took place the same day that an online White House petition to deport Justin Bieber reached the threshold to require a White House answer, with the We the People petitions already often conveying that mindset from the White House, in the same way that it has also embraced Reddit AMAs and previous social media Q&A's.

While many of yesterday's Q & A's, including an Obama video response to a tweet, ended up revolving around more general explanations of Obama's policies, some other exchanges did show White House staffers paying attention to more obscure public priorities, including a few West Wing shoutouts.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy answered a question on extra-terrestrial vehicles with a reference to a response to a We the People petition, while Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx tied a question about wolf paths to the need for infrastructure funding, including a reference to the "Pluie" wolf mentioned in the West wing episode.

Secretary of State John Kerry personally signed a tweet reply reiterating the U.S. commitment to helping the Philippines recover from Typhoon Haiyan, while First Lady Michelle Obama emphasized the important of arts education and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

From the account of the National Security Council, spokesperson Caitlin Hayden reiterated the President's faith in DNI head James Clapper, in response to a question about the "lies he told Congress," and that there was no thought of amnesty for Edward Snowden.

She also said it was a matter of weeks before it would be time for the administration to make a decision about its further involvement in Afghanistan, in addition to addressing a question about setting up a "separate cyber force."

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy responded to a question about the climate impact of methane, while Dan Utech, Special Assistant to the President For Energy and Climate Change, said the White House would continue to push for an energy efficiency bill.

Director of Intergovernmental Affairs David Agnew told the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange which state bills he's tracking this year.

Paulette Aniskoff, director of the Office of Public Engagement, emphasized that the White House policy team would continue to work on gun control issues.

She also said she would look into whether the President and First Lady might wear gear in support of the Principle 6 campaign in favor of anti-discrimination at the Olympics and critical of Russia's anti-LGTB policies, and discussed how groups could best organize to encourage White House action.

White House Assistant Press Secretary Matt Lehrich responded to a question about using a "pay it forward" model to address the student loan issue, while Council of Economic Advisers Member Betsey Stevenson discussed the role of publication bias in research on the minimum wage issue.

Rafael Lemaitre, Communications Director for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, explained to another questioner that the Attorney General would be able to issue an order rescheduling marijuana as a schedule 2 substance, but would be unlikely to do so given the science.

This was not the first time the Obama administration has taken a page from the Bartlet administration. In April 2012, Obama Adviser Brian Deese followed the example of Josh Malina's Will Bailey character to explain the Buffett Role proposal. Gene Sperling, an assistant on economic policy for Obama, was a consultant for The West Wing, and invoked a well-known episode focused on the problems Josh Lyman, Bradley Whitford's character, encountered in an online forum, when he did a Reddit AMA. And Press Secretary Jay Carney personally welcomed Allison Janney, who played Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, to Twitter, prompting an online West Wing cast reunion of sorts.

And though Big Block of Cheese Day may be over, the White House is keeping with its spirit later this week as President Obama participates in a "virtual" Google Hangout Road Trip tomorrow, following up on his previous virtual townhalls and "fireside chats."

"He’ll hop into Google+ Hangouts with people from across the United States to answer their questions and hear their thoughts about the topics he addressed in his speech," Google wrote in a blog post. "If you have a question for the President and would like the opportunity to participate in the Hangout Road Trip, just record a 60-second video with your name, location, a bit about yourself and the question you’d like to ask. Then post it on YouTube or Google+ and share it publicly with the hashtag #AskObama2014."