On Google+, Big Question for Obama Is Weeded Out

On Google+, Big Question for Obama Is Weeded Out

By Alexis Simendinger - January 31, 2012

President Obama did not tackle the subject most on the minds of some questioners during an online forum Monday. What drew many citizens to a Google+ chat with the president was their interest in how soon marijuana could be legalized, according to the rated popularity of questions posted before the event.

“With over 850,000 Americans arrested in 2010 on marijuana charges alone, and tens of billions of tax dollars being spent locking up marijuana users, isn't it time to regulate and tax marijuana?” was one of many such queries on the subject.

The hemp questions -- never actually posed to the president -- didn’t quite fit the aims of Obama’s top advisers, who were eager to expand the audience for Obama’s State of the Union themes. They were also keen to gather information about the people, opinions and interests expressed during Monday’s online “hangout” at Google’s new social networking arm, Google +.

From the serious to the silly, Obama answered about a dozen main questions along with some forceful (and sometimes skeptically constructed) follow-up queries. Would he stand up and do a jig on camera? Does the president think comedy can influence the outcome of an election? (That one was from a would-be Obama impersonator.) How does he plan to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary with Michelle in October?

On a more serious note, a young man asked about the administration’s use of drones and the image their destruction creates abroad when civilians are killed along with targeted prey. Obama defended his drone policy and said, “This thing is kept on a very tight leash. . . . We are very careful about how it’s been applied.” When Google+ moderator Steve Grove mentioned a front-page article in the New York Times titled “U.S. Drones Stir Outrage in Iraq; Fleet May Grow,” Obama said the article was “a little overwritten,” adding that the military’s use of drones has “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties” in Iraq. He said that suspected terrorists on “a list” are the actual targets, and “al-Qaeda is really weakened.”

The Internet questioners mingled with a “looks-like-America” group of five hand-picked men and women living in Texas, Michigan, California, Illinois and New Jersey. The five were dubbed the “hangout” group, and were allowed to interject their thoughts in direct conversation with Obama, who spoke from inside the White House. Woven into the mix were selected and pre-prepared questions from among the hundreds of thousands sent to Google +.

The event was billed in advance as a citizen interview with the president -- the kind of leap-over-the-news-media discussion favored by the president since his 2008 campaign. The Q&A provided a business plug for Google, attracted plenty of attention in the mainstream and other media, and was designed to enhance Obama’s image of transparency and populism. He answered questions about why the country issued H1B visas to engineers abroad when U.S. engineers are unemployed (he said he wanted to get a resume from one such unemployed Texan to provide some help); the state of U.S. manufacturing; help for education; his outlook on Internet privacy; and whether the Small Business Administration is getting the short end of the stick if Obama reorganizes the Commerce Department.

When a homeless Boston man in a videotaped question asked the president why the administration sends aid money to Pakistan when so many homeless Americans need help, Obama offered no words of personal comfort to the man, and instead dove into a policy discussion about the benefits of U.S. aid abroad.

More than 133,000 different questions were posed by more than 228,000 people. The public was invited to “vote” online to help select the most popular questions before Obama participated.

The president’s advisers said Google+, not the White House, had selected the questions Obama heard. “I know we're not picking the questions,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters hours before the online Q&A began. “Would that we could.”

Obama has previously participated in town-hall-style discussions with the public through YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. White House and the Obama campaign teams continue to be enthusiastic about tapping numerous Internet and social media portals to deliver and acquire information deemed useful to political communications.

On television, 38 million people watched the president’s State of the Union address Jan. 24, according to Nielsen. That was a considerably smaller audience than the 48 million who watched in 2010 and the 43 million who tuned in last year. About a quarter of viewers ceased viewing Obama within the first five minutes of this year’s broadcasts, according to a research firm quoted by the New York Times. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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