NY Times: The White House said more than 64,000 people watched President Obama answer questions on Thursday in the first live Internet video chat by an American president. But in declaring itself "Open for Questions," on the economy, the White House learned it must be careful what it wishes for.
More than 100,000 questions were submitted, with the idea that Mr. Obama would answer those that were most popular. But after 3.6 million votes were cast, one of the top questions turned out to be a query on whether legalizing marijuana might stimulate the economy by allowing the government to regulate and tax the drug.
"I don't know what this says about the online audience," Mr. Obama said, drawing a laugh from an audience gathered in the East Room, which included teachers, nurses and small-business people. "The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow the economy."
The marijuana question later took up a good chunk of the daily White House press briefing, where Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, suggested that advocates for legalizing marijuana had mounted a drive to rack up votes for the question.
Those advocates included Norml, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which urged supporters to "let the president know that millions of American voters believe that the time has come to tax and regulate marijuana."
Mr. Obama did make a sliver of news, disclosing that he intended to announce in the next couple of days what kind of help his administration would give the auto industry. A senior White House official said no decision had yet been made; Mr. Gibbs hinted that the announcement would most likely occur on Monday.
"We will provide them some help," Mr. Obama said, as he has in the past, while also talking tough, as he has done previously, by insisting that the auto makers would have to make "drastic changes" to restructure the way they do business.
"If they're not willing to make the changes and the restructurings that are necessary," Mr. Obama said, he will be unwilling to "have taxpayer money chase after bad money."
Thursday's session, which had been advertised on the White House Web site since Tuesday, is the latest example of efforts by the Obama team to replicate its creative use of the Internet in the election campaign.
Mr. Obama has been trying to make the case for his economic agenda in a variety of forums, from Jay Leno's late-night television show to the CBS program "60 Minutes" to a prime-time news conference on Tuesday. The Internet chat, streamed live on the White House Web site, was a chance for Mr. Obama to bypass the news media entirely.
"This is an experiment," the president said in a video promoting the event, "but it's also an exciting opportunity for me to look at a computer and get a snapshot of what Americans across the country care about.
"So, America, what do you want to know about the economy? Just go to whitehouse.gov and ask."
Mr. Obama, of course, was not looking at a computer himself. Jared Bernstein, an economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., moderated the event, reading some of the most popular written questions and cuing video questions.
Macon Phillips, the White House director of new media, said in an interview afterward that he was pleased with "the experiment," which he said was part of Mr. Obama's mission to open the government to greater citizen involvement.
"Anytime you ask if people will engage and 100,000 people show up, it's a big deal," Mr. Phillips said.
Yet at times, the forum had a canned feel, perhaps because most Americans tend to be more polite in their questions than news reporters, perhaps because they lacked any opportunity to follow up.
The first question, on education, prompted Mr. Obama to promise higher pay and more support for teachers, without specifics. The second, on what benefits his stimulus plan offered to struggling homeowners, prompted a recitation of the president's recently announced housing plan. The third was a video question, from "Harriet in Georgia," who asked the president what he was doing to bring back jobs that had been outsourced.
"Thank you so much for all your hard work," Harriet told the president. "God bless you."
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