During his presidency, Rutherford B. Hayes received visitors in the White House every day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., except Saturdays and Sundays. Anyone with public business could stand in line to discuss their concerns with the President of the United States. Hayes received as many visitors as he could during those four hours — the only regular exceptions being Tuesdays and Fridays, when Hayes attended noontime cabinet meetings.
Nowadays, security precautions would never allow the president to be so immediately accessible to the people. But the online town hall meeting in which President Obama participated in earlier today might be the next best thing. It’s a new twist on an old idea, and it’s long overdue.
Speaking via a live video feed from the East Room of the White House, Obama answered questions culled from the world wide web. Visitors to the “Open for Questions” page on the White House website were invited to submit their own questions, and then vote on questions posed by others. The most popular questions were presented to Obama by a moderator, who also took questions from a live audience joining him in the White House, and a few video questions from YouTube.
Yes, it felt too much like a campaign event; and yes, most of the questions allowed Obama to merely reiterate many of his regular talking points, talking up the economic stimulus package and his massive proposed budget. But the event was still important for a larger reason that has little to do with how the questions were chosen, or how canned Obama’s responses were. Here is a president trying his best to remain as close to the people who elected him as possible. Some conservatives will decry it as a ploy by Obama to establish himself as a benevolent dictator, only appearing to solicit input from the voters, or, as Hannity frames it, as evidence of Obama’s addiction to adulation, but those are the hysterias of ideologues. Sure, I’d like to see Barack take some more challenging questions, sure I’d like to see him go off-script and give us a few lines we haven’t heard before, but today’s online Q & A was still a step in the right direction.
The technology to do this has existed for years, and yet Obama is the first president to engage the electorate in this way. Argue that he’s still campaigning, argue that he’s only doing this to push his increasingly unpopular economic agenda — fine, but the fact remains the President of the United States is talking to the people. That’s important. Rutherford Hayes understood that way back in 1871; George W. Bush 130 years later, not so much. Obama gets it. Good on him — and more importantly, good for us.