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From the White House to the Next Open for Questions

BY Ari Melber | Monday, March 30 2009

Just about everyone has weighed in on the President's first virtual town hall, and my report from a day at the White House is here. Looking forward, here are three thoughts on the next Open for Questions, and picking up on related PDF posts:

1. Don't weed out the weed
Mathew Burton defends the pot questions, explaining how their open, spirited participation does not constitute "gaming" the system - that is the system. "Lack of participation from a broad base of the populace" was the problem, he argues, and next time the White House should avoid the temptation of using tactics "to--ahem--weed out questions." (Somewhere, Joseph Tartakovsky smiled.) If anything, Obama hit the wrong tone by not giving the pot question a serious answer on par with other citizen queries. That tack upset even ardent Obama supporters. It also left Robert Gibbs hitting clean up, as several thoughtful drug policy questions bubbled up in the press briefing that same afternoon.

2. Long live the unanswered questions
Over 90,000 questions poured into WhiteHouse.gov, and Obama answered six. The remainders can still be useful, however, even if they are not used in the virtual town hall. For starters, reporters can tap these kind of portals to channel genuine citizen concerns. To his credit, ABC's Jake Tapper quoted two citizen questions from WhiteHouse.gov when questioning Robert Gibbs on Thursday. Reporters and commentators can continue to use Open for Questions as a resource, and the White House should explore ways to keep the questions and civic discussions going. For example:
- Continue to highlight top questions on WhiteHouse.gov
- Assign additional questions to White House officials and staff to answer -- one Obama aide said such follow up is already in the works
- Invite citizens to respond to each other's questions and vote on ways to refine and plot out the purpose of questions. (See Gene Koo's call to "nuance the moderation.")

3. Let the people pick the topics
No one denies the economy is a huge issue. Going forward, however, citizens should get to choose the topics for the virtual town halls, not the government. Traditional, in-person town halls do not restrict people from asking about certain topics, and the virtual town halls should not be more constricting. Or, if the White House insists on creating a series of issue town halls, then at a minimum, participants should vote on the topics. And yes, if open voting indicates that participants want an in-depth town hall to reassess U.S. drug policy -- a topic that is rarely tackled in White House events or press conferences -- then so be it.