Obama Opens Up Online

From The Millstone – August 30, 2012

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In the early evening of Wednesday, the United States President Barack Obama got a chance to answer questions directly from voters (Democrats, Republicans, and undecideds alike). However, this wasn’t your basic open forum at a debate, town hall, or rally. No, President Obama sat down at a laptop in a room in Charlottesville, Virginia, and answered questions from anonymous askers on the online social news site, reddit.

Shitty_Watercolour, a popular reddit user, welcomes President Obama with one of his works.

Fresh off the heels of a rally at the host city of the University of Virginia where Obama appealed to the youth vote, he further showed his dedication to the youth vote with his reddit Q&A, colloquially known as an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on the site.

For those unfamiliar with the site reddit.com, it’s difficult to explain. The site is an open-source social news site, where users have the ability to post photos, links (to newspaper articles, websites, etc.), or start discussions in one of thousands of “sub-reddits”. Other users then have the opportunity to comment on the original post. The sub-reddits each have a different focus (the list is endless, ranging in everything from US politics, to funny images, to city-specific reddits like Ottawa, to hobbies and jobs), with one dedicated specifically to these AMA’s.

The AMA’s have quickly become a kind-of hidden secret for politicians, as Obama is not the first to face the reddit hive. Previously, the likes of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, Colorado representative Jared Polis, and others have taken to the web to answer questions.

When Obama went up, the site went crazy with excitement (even leading to the site occasionally crashing.) The AMA has received over 19,000 comments at the time of writing, and that number will likely only grow as those from other parts of the world continue to log on and see.And while Obama dedicated 30 minutes out of his busy campaign trail to “be real” with the reddit community, the question of its success is hard to determine.

For Obama, the results have to be seen as positive. reddit’s demographics state that the average US redditor is a liberal male, between 25-34 with college education, who lives in the lowest income bracket. To begin with, the odds are already in his favour, as can be seen by a quick trip to the “Politics” sub-reddit, which has a heavy Democratic slant and dedicates much space to the bashing of Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

More, though, it gives Obama the perception of being a “real guy,” while in fact he is answering questions that he gets to pick. The format of reddit is just a page filled with comments and questions, of which Obama could filter through and pick which questions he wanted to respond to. By the end of the AMA, Obama had answered ten questions ranging from inquiring to his favourite basketball player and asking for the White House beer’s recipe to questions regarding platform policy on space programs and supporting small businesses.

However, he got to pick these questions out of what is probably thousands. As opposed to a debate or town hall where a politician must face whatever question the person with the microphone asks, he was allowed to sift through and pick the ones that he either thought he could answer easily, or picked answers that he believed would be of most interest to the reddit audience, and therefore build up support (this is especially true in a question that focused on policies of Internet freedom, as well as the beer recipe). Meanwhile, the president skipped questions regarding marijuana legalization, lobbyist-congress relationships, and Guantanamo Bay.

Furthermore, there are no rules concerning the act of doing an AMA. There is no requirement for length or detail in an answer, no regulations stating follow-up questions should be answered, and no rules stating the highest voted questions must be considered. Furthermore, with thousands of questions, there’s no real penalty for avoiding a question as the general consensus tends to be that the person doing the AMA either ran out of time or didn’t see the question buried among all of the others.

Meanwhile, on the other side, reddit will most likely chalk this up as a win. But should they?

Though the technology allows for users to pressure politicians to answer tough questions, the flaws stated above make that an unrealistic fantasy. Of the ten answers Obama gave, not one of them appeared to be more candid or off-the-cuff than what someone would expect a politician to give to a traditional media outlet. He answered everything the same way he would if he was being asked the questions by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes or Barbara Walters on The View.

They were carefully scripted, as all answers from politicians are, but simply applied the casual and carefree tone that is normal for an anonymous social news site like reddit, giving the impression that it was a more important political step than it really was.

So while reddit continues to bathe in its success of landing such a prominent figure to undertake the task of answering an AMA, users should consider who the real beneficiary was: the politician who just had a captive audience listen to his hand-picked answers, or the tens of thousands of users who just got answers that they wouldn’t read should they appear as quotes in the New York Times or their local news station.

It’s all still politics, just in a new format.
Please find the full questions and answers below, organized by reddit user Biinaryy.

Question:

I am recent law school graduate. Despite graduating from a top school, I find myself unemployed with a large student loan debt burden. While I’m sure my immediate prospects will improve in time, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future knowing that my ability to live a productive life — to have a fulfilling career, to buy a house, to someday raise a family — is hampered by my debt and the bleak economic outlook for young people. I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way. Many of us are demoralized. Your 2008 campaign was successful in large part due to the efforts of younger demographics. We worked for you, we campaigned for you, and we turned out in record numbers to vote for you. What can I say to encourage those in similar situations as I am to show up again in November? What hope can you offer us for your second term?

Answer:

I understand how tough it is out there for recent grads. You’re right – your long term prospects are great, but that doesn’t help in the short term. Obviously some of the steps we have taken already help young people at the start of their careers. Because of the health care bill, you can stay on your parent’s plan until you’re twenty six. Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry. But the key for your future, and all our futures, is an economy that is growing and creating solid middle class jobs – and that’s why the choice in this election is so important. The other party has two ideas for growth – more taxs cuts for the wealthy (paid for by raising tax burdens on the middle class and gutting investments like education) and getting rid of regulations we’ve put in place to control the excesses on wall street and help consumers. These ideas have been tried, they didnt work, and will make the economy worse. I want to keep promoting advanced manufacturing that will bring jobs back to America, promote all-American energy sources (including wind and solar), keep investing in education and make college more affordable, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in science, and reduce our deficit in a balanced way with prudent spending cuts and higher taxes on folks making more than $250,000/year. I don’t promise that this will solve all our immediate economic challenges, but my plans will lay the foundation for long term growth for your generation, and for generations to follow. So don’t be discouraged – we didn’t get into this fix overnight, and we won’t get out overnight, but we are making progress and with your help will make more.

Question:

What’s the recipe for the White House’s beer?

Answer:

It will be out soon! I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.

Question:

What are you going to do to end the corrupting influence of money in politics during your second term?

Answer:

Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress – to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.

Question:

What was the most difficult decision that you had to make during this term?

Answer:

The decision to surge our forces in afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you. The decision did help us blunt the taliban’s momentum, and is allowing us to transition to afghan lead – so we will have recovered that surge at the end of this month, and will end the war at the end of 2014. But knowing of the heroes that have fallen is something you never forget.

Question:

What is the first thing you’ll do on November 7th, win or lose?

Answer:

Win or lose, I’ll be thanking everybody who is working so hard – especially all the volunteers in field offices all across the country, and the amazing young people in our campaign offices.

Question:

How are you going help small businesses in 2013 and 2014? and what if any bills are you going to implement for small businesses, in 2013, and 2014?

Answer:

We’ve really focused on this since I came into office – 18 tax cuts for small business, easier funding from the SBA. Going forward, I want to keep taxes low for the 98 percent of small businesses that have $250,000 or less in income, make it easier for small business to access financing, and expand their opportunities to export. And we will be implementing the Jobs Act bill that I signed that will make it easier for startups to access crowd-funding and reduce their tax burden at the start-up stage.

Question:

Who’s your favourite Basketball player?

Answer:

Jordan – I’m a Bulls guy.

Question:

We know how Republicans feel about protecting Internet Freedom. Is Internet Freedom an issue you’d push to add to the Democratic Party’s 2012 platform?

Answer:

Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody – from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although there will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won’t stray from that principle – and it will be reflected in the platform.

Question:

Are you considering increasing funds to the space program?

Answer:

Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level – so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.

Question:

How do you balance family life and hobbies with, well, being the POTUS?

Answer:

It’s hard – truthfully the main thing other than work is just making sure that I’m spending enough time with michelle and the girls. The big advantage I have is that I live above the store – so I have no commute! So we make sure that when I’m in DC I never miss dinner with them at 6:30 pm – even if I have to go back down to the Oval for work later in the evening. I do work out every morning as well, and try to get a basketball or golf game in on the weekends just to get out of the bubble. Speaking of balance, though, I need to get going so I’m back in DC in time for dinner. But I want to thank everybody at reddit for participating – this is an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run. AND REMEMBER TO VOTE IN NOVEMBER – if you need to know how to register, go to Gottaregister.com. By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience – NOT BAD!

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