Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
At Barack Obama's Twitter Town Hall on Wednesday afternoon, a heavy screening of submissions to #askObama left the president answering broad questions with little of the social media spice we've come to expect.
The forum essentially amounted to State of the Union Redux. We heard about the need for investment, investment, and more investment in education, infrastructure and energy. There was some discussion of a startup visa program for immigrant entrepreneurs. There were allusions to "revenue raisers"—tax increases on the wealthiest Americans—as well as some finger-wagging at Republicans for their obstinance even as Democrats made concessions. There was a defense of the stimulus program, which, like the New Deal, will probably have its efficacy questioned forever after.
The fact is, there was little that one could call "new" in President Obama's remarks today. Part of that is owing to the questions that were selected by Twitter moderators, questions that were mostly non-confrontational and actually kind of softball. "Will you focus on promoting alternative energy industries in oil states like Louisiana and Texas?" was one. "How will admin work to help underwater homeowners who aren't behind in payments but are trapped in homes they can't sell?" was another.
Obama has always said he's interested in promoting alternative energy industries; he's always said he wants to push for mortgage relief. Far more perplexing is how Obama plans on getting anything done with a Republican Congress that has pledged total opposition to new government spending, new taxes and new intervention in private business. Or how funding operations in Libya is consistent with his support for reducing our defense budget.
But the biggest problem with the Twitter Town Hall wasn't what Obama said; it was how he said it. When the whole thing was over, you could have rearranged all of the sentences Obama used this afternoon and came up with an average political speech.
Twitter lends itself to punch, immediacy, and irreverence, not talking points and sweeping outlines of policy. It's a medium that rewards the short and grabby. It's supposed to take celebrities out from behind their publicists and PR cabals and give average people a direct line into their heads. It's supposed to be fun.
This was not fun. It felt like nearly every other public address, excepting the times the President called out a Twitter user for their handle or profile picture. Twitter gave Americans a new way to address the President, but we were addressed in pretty much the same way we've always been.
No one's saying Obama should have spoken in tweets, but the character of the questions and answers didn't feel in step with the spirit of the medium. This was a missed opportunity to make old arguments in a new way, one that would resonate more with an electorate that is increasingly communicating via Twitter—and whose members are increasingly more forward and direct with each other.
That directness was missing, as it has been for some time. Part of the reason Obama was so successful in 2008, and a big reason why he carried so many young voters, is that he seemed more like a person than a politician—a luxury afforded to people who aren't yet President of the United States.
The age of new media demands the ever-more-genuine politician (cough, Cory Booker). That's an angle Obama needs to work during his re-election campaign; candidates always need to convince Americans that they're "real." Cherry-picking the broad questions to answer with similarly broad responses doesn't feel anything like the real conversation Twitter is supposed to offer.