An online chat with the president

President Obama is holding a different kind of town hall Thursday morning -- instead of traveling to a swing state, he's going on the Web.

By Alex Koppelman

Published March 26, 2009 3:25PM (EDT)

It took until 2009, but the Internet just got a little more legitimate. It's not just for porn anymore, or exclusively the hangout of those awful political bloggers, because President Obama is going online for a new kind of town hall.

Beginning at 11:30 ET, Obama will be live on the White House Web site, taking questions submitted by users all across the country. And, in a twist, visitors to the site have had the opportunity to vote for their favorite questions.

The question of just how faithful the administration will be to the results of the vote is an open one. Vice President Biden's chief economic advisor, Jared Bernstein, is in charge of actually asking the questions, so there's an opportunity for him to choose only those Obama wants to answer, though of course they can't be too transparent about that without taking a few hits.

The problem with Web democracy, though, is that the administration would probably rather not focus on some of the most popular questions. As my former colleague Michael Scherer points out in Time's Swampland blog, many of the top queries are about drug policy -- an important issue, obviously, but not exactly the focus the White House had in mind.

This is being billed as the first online town hall with any president, but the Bush administration held somewhat similar events with its officials. The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article by Bush's Internet director on the similarities and differences between what Obama's doing today and what his predecessor did.

Update: If you're wondering (I know I was) Obama did end up taking one of the drug policy questions, which were largely focused on marijuana. The question wasn't actually asked by Bernstein, though -- the president brought it up on his own, and laughingly dismissed it.

"There was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation, and I don’t know what this says about the online audience." Obama said, adding that because it was so popular, he didn't want to ignore it, but saying, “The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”

For the most part, other than that, the questions have been softballs. That's not the White House's fault, though -- Bernstein largely went down the line of the most popular submissions, stuff like, "The Founding Fathers believed that there is no difference between a free society and an educated society. Our educational system, however, is woefully inadequate. How do you plan to restore education as a right and core cultural value in America?"

As in his press conferences, these kinds of questions don't really pose that much of a challenge for the president. Instead, they're really a jumping-off point for Obama, who has launched into long, detailed answers that are for the most part fairly familiar explanations of his policies.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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