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Obama Virtual Road Trip Touches on Net Neutrality, Euromaidan, Surveillance, Economy and Obamacare

BY Miranda Neubauer | Saturday, February 1 2014

In a virtual "road trip," or series of Google hangouts across the United States, President Obama participated in Friday, he at one point answered a question about how he viewed the democracy protests in the Ukraine. But his answer said as much about the mindset behind the online post-State-of-the Union Q & A session as it did about the protesters in the Ukraine.

As part of the event, Obama participated in three different Google Hangouts with Americans on the West Coast of the country, the Central part of the country, and the East Coast. Moderator Steve Grove, director of community partnerships for Google Plus, said Google selected the questioners from thousands of questions that had been submitted, and emphasized that neither President Obama nor his staff were informed of them in advance. The session capped off a week during which the White House put an emphasis on online engagement with ordinary Americans following the address to Congress, as it has the previous two years, most prominently this year with the Big Block of Cheese Day event on Wednesday.

The question about the Ukraine protests came from Steve Hamilton, a documentary filmmaker from Santa Clara, Calif. He said he had produced a film about Chernobyl in the Ukraine last year and that friends he made there during that time were now living under un-Democratic, Soviet-like rule, and he wanted to know how the Obama administration was assisting the Euromaidan protestors.

Obama noted that the U.S. Embassy had been in touch with the opposition as well as the government, and that Vice President Joe Biden has been speaking directly to Ukrainian President Yanukovich about U.S. concerns that rules restricting free speech were counterproductive and the importance of incorporating the voices of the opposition into a Democratic process to create more legitimate representative government. "I think what the people of Ukraine do not want to see...is a situation where behind closed doors their aspirations for a more free society and one that's integrated with Europe more closely, that that's foreclosed," Obama said. "I think this is just one more example of what we've seen around the world, it's very hard for countries to engage in old-style politics that doesn't take into account the genuine hopes and aspirations of ordinary people because with the Internet, and smartphones and Google and technology and Information, people want to be part of determining their own destiny, and you can't bottle up information in the same way that you used to."

Similar ideas resonated when he answered a question from Art Hernandez, a data tech in Tempe, Ariz., about net neutrality. Hernandez said he often talked with his daughters on the East Coast via video chat, and asked Obama how he felt about the recent court decision on net neutrality.

Before he answered, Obama said he liked the Bob Marley poster on the wall behind him. "I think I might have had that one in high school." He then went on to say that he cared deeply about the issue since he ran for office "in part because my own campaign was empowered by a free and open Internet and the ability for citizens all across this country to engage and create, and find new ways and new tools to mobilize themselves...a lot of that couldn't have been if there were a bunch of commercial barriers and roadblocks." He noted that he as well as Tom Wheeler, the FCC Chairman he appointed, were strong supporters of net neutrality, and that Wheeler and the FCC were now looking at possible appeals or new rulemaking options, though he could not personally intervene in the independent agency. "You can feel confident that this administration will continue to support [a free and open Internet]," he said, adding that it was important that the court did confirm that the FCC could regulate that space.

Moving to the hangout representing the central part of the country, moderator Grove noted that "here in the heartland, like most of the country, the number one most searched issue on Google is the economy." The questions chosen for that segment reflected that.

Darnell Summer, who makes $7.25 an hour as a fried cook at a fast food restaurant in Milwaukee, recounted having been on strike four times as part of Wisconsin Jobs Now to call for an increase in wages and a fast food union. "My question to you is what can you and Congress to help people as myself in this situation survive, because with $7.25, and we were broken down in to part-time to avoid paying health insurance, we can't survive." Leatrice Fullerton, a social worker in Kalamazoo, Mich., described growing up as the third-oldest of six girls raised by a single mother living in poverty. Though blind, she said she was the first in her family to graduate from college and the first of her siblings to graduate from high school. With a master's degree from Western Michigan University, she said she was looking for work for three years even though she graduated from the top of her class, and wanted to know the President's plan for more inclusion of people with disabilities in the work force.

In his responses, Obama reiterated his call from the State of the Union to raise the minimum wage, and successes to that end on the local and state level, and emphasized the federal government's efforts to hire more people with disabilities. Obama noted that just today he had been meeting with a group of employers about helping the long-term unemployed. One of them told him that his company was making a special effort to recruit people with disabilities, "with one distribution center where up to 50 percent of the workers have some sort of disability, and it was 20 percent more efficient than any of the other ones."

On the East Coast, Obama heard from Rebecca Stewart, a mother of two in Covington, Ky., who recounted her "panicked experience," unable to keep her insurance plan due to the health care law, of trying to ensure that her ten-year old son would still be able to see his specialist and "spending days on the phone confidently being delivered the wrong information." President Obama promised her that someone from the White House would get in touch with her by the end of the day "and not only will they be confident, it will be the right answer." He encouraged others to go to Healthcare.gov, which he emphasized is now functioning, and otherwise to call state help-lines with specific inquiries, noting that the state of Kentucky "had a pretty good operation," though Stewart interjected before the next questioner that she "had called Kentucky." Governor Steve Beshear of Kentucky had been a special guest at the State of the Union as a Republican governor working to implement the health care law.

A question about restoring trust after the reports of NSA surveillance and surveillance of Muslims came from Riham Osman, a program assistant in Washington D.C.

"The NSA is prohibited by law from engaging in surveillance of U.S. persons or people within the U.S. without a court order, that's always been true, that continues to be true," Obama emphasized, noting that access to numbers collected under the metadata program had only been possible when there were reasonable suspicions of a threat, not affecting the majority of people. But because there a legitimate concern "that if those number are all in one place the program is potentially subject to abuse," he noted that he had announced that within 60 days, the NSA and FBI would report back on how to move that data out from under government control. "Pretty much uniformly in every single interaction I've had with law enforcement and the intelligence community, they are very mindful that any kind of discriminatory action are going to be dealt with severely. We don't have a lot of patience for that," he added. "Our best defense against Muslim extremists is a Muslim community working with us, not viewed with suspicion."

The "road-trip" closed with an appropriately down-to-earth interaction between Rob Page, a solar industry employee in Portland, Maine, and Obama. "This is about the coolest thing ever," Page said. "Out of a million questions I would like to ask you over a beer," he said, what had struck him was reading an article about how presidents age extremely. "So my question is very simple, from one man to another...how are you? How is life treating you? Are you happy? Is everything good with you, man?"

"We should have that beer...but, you know, I am pretty happy," Obama replied, saying that Michelle Obama and his daughters help keep his life in perspective, and that he felt rewarded by being able to make small differences in people's lives on a daily basis. While he said it could be trying to have to address the number of ways somebody in the federal government might screw up on any given day, "when I travel outside of Washington, or when I have a chance to have a chat like this, I'm just reminded of how many wonderful people there are in this country....And my wife at least still thinks I'm pretty cute even with the gray hair."