Obama fields friendly questions at GW gathering

Asking for more time to fulfill the faith they had placed in him, President Obama told supporters at George Washington University that “if you were excited in 2008, that was the beginning of the journey.”

The town hall-style event at the university's Marvin Center included a few students and school administrators but mainly volunteers from Obama's political organization, Organizing for America.

The event showcased the administration's expanding embrace of new technology, but also highlighted the tight control the White House maintains over the content of its message.

Obama, for example, took his first-ever question over Skype, a software system that allows people making phone calls over the internet to see each other.

A supporter in Obama's adopted hometown of Chicago asked over Skype what message volunteers should use in the field to persuade fellow Democrats to vote in the Nov. 2 congressional elections. Obama used the inquiry to recite a laundry list of his accomplishments.

Similarly, someone who sent a question over Twitter, asked why people don't remember that Obama's “Yes We Can” slogan from 2008 didn't promise it would all get done in 21 months.

“That's sort of a softball,” Obama chuckled.

But all of the questions at George Washington University were softballs — a recurring dynamic largely engineered by the White House and the Democratic Party to protect Obama, but which also dramatically limits the political value of his so-called town hall events.

The GW event was not unlike the gatherings Obama has been holding in the backyards of supporters across the country: small, tightly controlled events featuring questions posed only by local Democrats.

But Obama so far has seen the most impact politically from voter encounters that forced him to deal with disappointed and even angry constituents — notably, the CNBC town hall meeting last month at the Newseum in Washington.

In that encounter, a series of unhappy supporters challenged Obama to address their economic fears, dim prospects for finding jobs and pessimism about the future.

The event briefly electrified the campaign, made minor media celebrities of the president's interrogators, and showed a reasonably nimble Obama expressing engagement and empathy — two key elements critics cite as lacking in his efforts on behalf of Democratic candidates in the midterm elections.

But the White House, like many of its predecessors, views unscripted events as minefields, presenting too many potential political hazards for the president so close to a critical election.

Several of the questions Obama got at GW were preselected by the Democratic National Committee, according to the White House. The rest, from the audience, were friendly openings for Obama's talking points.

When one participant asked what had surprised Obama about Washington, the president responded with a complaint about how a 24-hour news cycle was trivializing the important issues of the day, making it difficult for people to focus on the long term.

Obama offered words of support for those in Congress, mostly other Democrats, who supported his agenda, including an economic stimulus bill and health care reform, but who are now being punished by voters for it. Though it's “fashionable to get down on Congress,” Obama said, he appreciated “how courageous a lot of members of Congress have been.”

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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