March 27, 2009

Obama Hosts First-Ever Virtual Town Hall Meeting

President Barack Obama held a precedent-setting virtual town hall meeting at the White House on Thursday, responding to questions sent in by online readers and White House attendees on a wide variety of topics from universal health care to jobs, education, the auto industry, and the legalization of marijuana. 

"When I was running for President, I promised to open up the White House to the American people. And this event, which is being streamed live over the Internet, marks an important step towards achieving that goal.  And I'm looking forward to taking your questions and hearing your thoughts and concerns -- because what matters to you and your families, and what people here in Washington are focused on, aren't always one and the same thing," Obama said as he kicked off the meeting.

Although job creation is challenging during the current economic slowdown, the work of the future should be in high-paying, high-skill sectors such as clean energy technology, Obama said.

It will take some time, perhaps through the rest of the year, before businesses begin aggressively hiring again, he said, adding that it may not happen until companies see evidence the economy is recovering.

The United States has suffered a "massive loss of jobs" because of the current recession and financial industry turmoil, said Obama, in response to a question about how soon Americans could expect a return of jobs that have been outsourced abroad.  Many of the lost jobs in recent years involve work done by low-wage earners with limited skills, he added.

Obama said Thursday's first-of-its kind virtual town hall meeting was an "an important step" toward establishing a broader platform for information about his administration.

"This isn't about me. It's about you," Obama said.

"It's about the folks whose letters I read every single day.  And for the American people, what's going on is not a game.  What matters to you is how you're going to find a new job when nobody seems to be hiring or how to pay medical bills after you get out of the hospital or how to put your children through college when the money you'd put away for their tuition is no longer there."

The White House had received over 100,000 online questions before the meeting began.

Speaking of the U.S. auto industry, Obama called the current model unsustainable and said the Big Three manufacturers would ultimately have to change their ways.

"We need to preserve a U.S. auto industry.  I think that's important.  I think it's important not just symbolically; it's important because the auto industry is a huge employer -- not just the people who work for GM or Ford or Chrysler, but all the suppliers, all the ripple effects that are created as a consequence of our auto industry," Obama said.

However, he emphasized that his job is to protect U.S. taxpayers, and said he wouldn't spend federal dollars on "a model that doesn't work."

"At some point people are going to start buying new cars again, but it's going to take a little bit of time for the automakers to get back on their feet," Obama said.

Sales of new cars had previously been around 14 million, but have dropped to 9 million since the economic downturn, Obama said, as Americans struggle to get car loans and are wary of making big-ticket purchases amid job loss concerns.

But even as the economy rebounds, Detroit cannot continue to focus on building more SUVs and relying on low gas prices, the president said.

Speaking on the issue of universal health care, Obama said he wishes to build on the current system that relies in part on employer plans. 

When asked why the U.S. couldn't simply adopt the European system, Obama said the United States has a legacy of employer-based health plans that have met the needs of most Americans.  For that reason, he prefers to augment the current system, which has been in existence for generations, rather than entirely replace it, he said.

"A lot of people think that in order to get universal health care, it means that you have to have what's called a single-payer system of some sort.  And so Canada is the classic example:  Basically, everybody pays a lot of taxes into the health care system, but if you're a Canadian, you're automatically covered.  And so you go in -- England has a similar -- a variation on this same type of system.  You go in and you just say, "I'm sick," and somebody treats you, and that's it," he said.

"The problem is, is that we have what's called a legacy, a set of institutions that aren't that easily transformed."

""¦and so what evolved in America was an employer-based system.  It may not be the best system if we were designing it from scratch.  But that's what everybody is accustomed to.  That's what everybody is used to.  It works for a lot of Americans.  And so I don't think the best way to fix our health care system is to suddenly completely scrap what everybody is accustomed to and the vast majority of people already have.  Rather, what I think we should do is to build on the system that we have and fill some of these gaps. "

Obama said he would depend upon Congress to devise an optimal system, which he said must be overhauled sooner rather than later.

The United States' largest contributor to the nation's long-term deficit is Medicaid and Medicare, he said. 

The president was asked about what, if any, assistance is available to Americans who are struggling to make their mortgage payments.  Obama said his administration has made it easier for Americans to refinance, with 40 percent of mortgages are now eligible.

Obama said the number of refinanced mortgages is already starting to increase "significantly", and that homeowners need to take advantage of that as a way to reduce their monthly payments.

Obama said additional funding and reform are the best way to improve the nation's education.

"So a lot of times in Washington we get an argument about money versus reform.  And the key thing to understand about our education system is we need more resources and we need reform.  If we just put more money into a system that's designed for the 19th century and we're in the 21st, we're not going to get the educational outcomes we need.  On the other hand, if we talk a lot about reform but we're not willing to put more resources in, that's not going to work," he said.
Obama pointed to another problem, namely the current 9-month school year, which was designed for an agriculture society centuries ago.

Obama, who graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, said the only reason he had been elected president was because of the education he received, primarily through scholarships and the sacrifice of his family.

Responding to a question from a Philadelphia-area schoolteacher, Obama said some people just aren't meant to be teachers, and that there has to be a way to ease bad teachers out of the classroom.
When Obama asked the woman if she'd seen any teachers whose work was so bad she wouldn't want her own children in that class, the woman looked away and refused to answer.

The president said there needs to be other ways to evaluate teachers besides standardized tests, which can't always measure progress in a struggling school.   This is the biggest flaw in the No Child Left Behind program, he said.

If schoolteachers are forced to instruct based solely on a standardized test, fewer students will be inspired to truly learn, he added.

On the issue of veterans, Obama reiterated his support for increased funding for various veterans programs, and the treatment of health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder.  He said the nation must ensure returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq have the support they need, and that government alone can't do the job.  Businesses, he said, must make jobs available to veterans, and churches and communities must also reach out.

Obama called the treatment received by returning Vietnam veterans "inexcusable".

Obama told town hall audience that one of the most popular questions he received was whether or not legalizing marijuana might help pull the country out of the current recession.

"I don't know what this says about the online audience," the president said jokingly.

He followed up with a serious response, saying he did not believe that was a good economic policy.

Calling nurses the backbone of the nation's healthcare system, Obama spoke of the need to include nurses in the national dialogue about health care reform.

Nurses must play a key role in health policy, he said, adding that there actually is a shortage of nurses at a time when the country is experiencing rising unemployment.

"We've got a problem in this country, which is we have a shortage of nurses -- makes no sense, given this unemployment rate.  But the reason is, is because the pay of nurses, the hours of nurses, the quality of life of nurses, the fact that nurse professors are even worse paid than the nurses themselves, so that you get these huge bottlenecks in terms of training as many nurses as we want.

All these issues are part of the inefficiency of the health care system that has to be fixed.  And the more we're emphasizing primary care, preventive care, wellness -- all of which will save us money in the long term -- the more that we can deploy nurses as the troops on the front lines in ultimately driving down some of these health care costs."

Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibb, said Obama's virtual town hall meeting was "a way for the president to do what he enjoys doing out on the road, but saves on gas."

The White House Web site had already logged more than 100,000 questions for President Obama by 9 a.m. Thursday morning.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama used the Internet to build a grassroots organization that helped raise record-setting amounts of money.  As president, he is now employing the same online network and style to speak directly with Americans.

The president already has used the tactic on the road, embarking on a whirlwind 2-day trip to the West Coast last week where he hosted town hall-style meetings, and later appearing on Jay Leno's show. 

"It's not a whole lot different than were we in California doing the meeting," said Gibbs, referring to Thursday's virtual town hall meeting.

"It's just we'll have people hooked up from a lot of different places all over the country, but he'll be able to do all that from the East Room."

The town hall venue allows for easier questions and an opportunity to get his message to the broadest possible audience.

Political operatives say Obama's strategy is a way to reach a key demographic.

"In the new world of online media, formal press conferences are just one element or program to get the message out "” to those, usually older, who watch such things on TV. The online version he is doing is an alternative way to get out the same message, in this case on the budget, targeted toward a different audience, usually younger," Morley Winograd, a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore, told the Associated Press.

"In both cases the questioners are just props "” or, in some cases, foils "” for the star, Obama, to deliver his message. But in the latter case, they get to self-nominate instead of be selected by elites," said Winograd, who now runs the Institute for Communication Technology Management at the University of Southern California.
Political strategist and campaign veteran Simon Rosenberg called it part campaign-style politics and part "American Idol".

"Barack Obama is going to reinvent the presidency the way he reinvented electoral politics," he told the AP.

"He is allowing everyday people to participate in a way that would've been impossible in the old media world," said Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network.

Obama's campaign permitted his supporters to organize themselves and go door-to-door to raise money.  This left many with a sense of ownership of the campaign, driving them to devote countless hours to securing Obama's Democratic Party nomination and presidential victory.

Obama's aides are now taking that one step forward, incorporating tools that allow visitors to the White House Web site to select questions Obama will answer, allowing Thursday event to be somewhat of a democratic press conference.

"Average people get to shape the outcome, like 'American Idol,'" Rosenberg said.

"This is not a couch-potato age. Average people are expecting to be part of the process."

However, Republicans said the process lends itself to easier questions.  

"The president is going back to the safe confines he was always most comfortable with, in this case a friendly audience where the focus is on the sale rather than the substance," GOP strategist Kevin Madden told the AP.

President Obama remains a highly popular figure, despite the reluctance of some to embrace his latest budget proposal. 

But aides to Obama argue that the more the president talks about his proposals, the more Americans would be convinced to support the plans.

Toward that end, aides wanted to limit the questions to those relating to health care, energy and education, the three crucial priorities in Obama's initial budget. 

Some of the questions came from the Web site, while others came via YouTube and some from the roughly 100 attendees representing nurses, teachers and small-business employees.

"The president just thinks it's another opportunity to talk directly with the American people about the challenges that we have, the choices and the decisions that we're making, and the path that we're taking to get us back to prosperous days," said Gibbs.

The White House's online town hall Web site can be viewed at http://www.whitehouse.gov/openforquestions/