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President Obama's Google+ Hangout: No Pot Questions, But Plenty of Intellectual Property

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, January 30 2012

This questioner wanted answers to the Obama administration's use of drones in warfare

President Barack Obama participated in a lively online video chat late Monday with five voters across the country as part of a social media townhall-like event using Google's Google+ Hangout feature. He also answered questions submitted by individuals via YouTube.

Those were five lucky people: According to the White House' YouTube channel, almost 230,000 people submitted 133,183 questions, and 1.6 million people gave those questions an up or down vote.

How did it go? The event, which lasted just under an hour, struck a balance between spontaneous discussion and broadcast televised event, with the citizen-participants in the video hangout able to interact with the president and follow-up with questions and comments in a natural two-way discussion. Steve Grove, YouTube's head of community partnerships, moderated the event from Mountain View, California, while President Obama answered questions from the West Wing of the White House.

Those who were rooting for a completely free-wheeling internet discussion would have been disappointed. The broadcast-trained Grove bridged the gap between television and the internet by switching back and forth between YouTube questions and the five participants in the Google Hangout. Instead of focusing on the questions about marijuana legalization that the internet community had voted up, Google picked YouTube questions that had to do with the economy, jobs, foreign policy and the question of a "living wage," among other things.

Nevertheless, Grove did present a YouTube question from someone concerned about a recent New York Times story about the administration's use of drones in Afghanistan, and Obama's answer made news because he officially acknowledged the use of the drones for the first time by defending the program. He said that the program is on "a very tight leash," and that their use is very targeted. The program is classified, according to the Los Angeles Times.

YouTube's Grove also posed a question that had been voted to the top of the list on the White House' YouTube channel by the public. That question asked Obama why he is "personally supporting" the extradition of a British citizen in Sheffield named Richard O'Dwyer. The U.S. Justice Department has identified O'Dwyer as someone running the, which was streaming free television online. Justice seized the domain in the summer of 2010 and wants O'Dwyer to to extradited to the United States to face the charges in U.S. court.

Obama responded that he wasn't "personally supporting" anything, but that intellectual property has to be respected.

The British case wasn't the only copyright-related question that Grove asked. He also introduced a YouTube question asking how the president will stop online piracy at the same time as preserving a free and open internet.

Even then, however, the choice of the question isn't as esoteric as it once might have been. In fact, the question interests a key demographic whose votes Obama would like to have. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that news about the anti-piracy legislation that had been moving through Congress was the most closely followed subject among Americans under the age of 30.

For his part during the hangout, President Obama pointed to the MegaUpload indictment against Kim Dotcom as an example of how his administration is dealing with the issue, while at the same time pointing out the White House' recent statement on the concerns it had with the Stop Online Piracy Act and its Senate counterpart PROTECT-IP.

"I think that it's going to be possible for us to make sure that we're protecting intellectual property that creates a lot of jobs in this country," Obama said. "It's one of the United States' biggest exports, but also do it in a way that it doesn't affect the fundamental integrity of the internet as an open, transparent system."

At one point near the end of the question-and-answer session Christine Wolf, a mother of three in Evanston, Il. pulled her three children hiding in the background into view to greet the President. That wasn't the only unscripted moment: Jennifer Weddel from Fort Worth, Texas at the end of the discussion asked the president if he would "do a little jig for us."

The president gracefully declined by saying "No dancing," and tried to deflect the question by talking about the First Lady's thoughts about his singing capabilities.

For the most part, the event came off as an intimate discussion between several citizens and the president about the big issues that voters face in their everyday lives.

At times Obama did address some of the individual voters' questions, but like anyone in a job interview, he wasted no time in touting his accomplishments, and also selling his policy agenda. For example when a YouTube questioner asked whether he would support the idea of a "living wage," Obama spent the first few minutes reciting his tax policy agenda and the three million jobs created in the past 22 months without directly answering the question.

On the other hand when Weddell asked the president why the United States has a visa program that enables foreign workers to work for U.S. companies temporarily even as people like her husband are out of work, Obama responded by telling her to send her engineer husband's resume over.

One other difference between this format and a regular in-person town hall is perhaps the wide swath of people that Grove was able to pick to participate in the discussion. They were geographically dispersed but also very different in background. One YouTube questioner was a homeless veteran wondering why the United States gives aid to Pakistan when he sees so many people like himself in the United States. Another YouTube question came from an unemployed member of the Occupy movement who wondered what Obama's "plan" was for them.

The other element of the Google+ hangout that seemed to be unique was that the five members of the public who Google chose to participate were able to grill the president and disagree with his responses.

For example, California high school student Adam Clark's question about making college more affordable sparked off an extended discussion. After Obama reeled off some thoughts about providing incentives to colleges and universities to make the experience more affordable, Clark continued to press the president, asking what his direct advice would be to someone who faces the prospect of not being able to find a job after paying for an expensive college education.

Obama gave Clark some frank advice. He said that he's just have to take on the debt and plan ahead instead of waiting until after graduation to figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life.

"I wish it were the case that you could go and have fun for four years and then think about what you want to do," he said.

But the fact is that college is a "big enough of an investment" that students now need to plan ahead.

Weddel from Texas jumped in after the president spoke and pushed back, noting that a lot of high school students get discouraged from applying to college because they see their parents unemployed. But Obama was adamant, pointing out that statistically the chances of someone landing a job are much higher if they have a college degree.

Ramon Ray, a small business owner from Montclair, New Jersey, also jumped in and told Waddell that parents and students need to plan ahead and save.

While this is Obama's first Google hangout, he's also participated in similar events on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Both Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and Mitt Romney, Massachusetts' former Governor, have previously participated in Google hangouts during this campaign cycle.