Obama flubs his town hall on Twitter

Great idea. But the president's first try at communicating via Twitter showed that he needs some coaching about this strange art form..

Crosscut archive image.

President Barack Obama tweets during the Twitter Town Hall in the East Room of the White House on July 6. Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, who served as the town hall moderator, is pictured at left.

Great idea. But the president's first try at communicating via Twitter showed that he needs some coaching about this strange art form..

Last week President Barack Obama held his first town hall on Twitter. A really great idea and I plunged in with this @TrahantReports question : “#AskObama Indian Cntry's unemployment rate is unacceptable. Cutting govt jobs will make this situation far worse. What steps to fix this?"

A Twitter town hall is a great idea. In theory. This first round revealed three huge problems.

First, the president didn’t play the game. Twitter requires focus, honing, and shaping ideas into 140 characters. This is not an easy thing to do, but by its very nature, it changes the conversation. Twitter captures raw essence, not routine answers. The president stuck with routine answers.

Second, the town hall was impossible to participate in as a reader. The posts were flying by so fast that it was impossible to get any sense of the issues or the nation. It was better to read the threads later, after the event. One way to fix that problem would be to create multiple hashtags, or search cues, that create mini-conversation threads. So #AskObama would be followed, for example, by #Ndnissues ... or something like that.

Third, and this one really troubles me, a town hall of this sort makes it even more impossible for smaller demographic groups to participate. The Twitter universe for Native Americans is tiny — not enough buzz to warrant attention. Again, in theory. But that needs to be fixed. Twitter (or any other social media) ought to be ideal for reaching constituent groups that are rarely heard from in general conversation. I love that this president has had tribal leaders’ forums, but I would also like to see Indian questions appear in a general forum such as the Twitter town hall.

I have a good example of that. Many remember my question to President George W. Bush about tribal sovereignty. But my second question, the one that’s not replayed on YouTube, was about the payroll tax. Too many politicians treat the payroll tax as if it doesn’t exist and it doesn’t contribute to the government. This is the federal tax that impacts Indian Country the most. In fact, it now generates 36 percent of the federal government’s revenues, more than double that of corporate taxes. Yet when the discussion about taxes pops up ... it’s income or corporate taxes that must be cut; not the tax that matters to most of us in America.

The payroll tax is particularly difficult for people who are self-employed (disclosure: that’s me). We get to pay double. Most people only pay half, their employer pays the other half. But if you work for yourself, well, write a check. Or two.

I wanted to ask the president about government jobs because I don’t see how we avoid a second recession dive with so many layoffs ahead. Friday’s employment report put this trend into perspective, saying: “Employment in government continued to trend down over the month (-39,000). Federal employment declined by 14,000 in June. Employment in both state government and local government continued to trend down over the month and has been falling since the second half of 2008.”

“Big” government has been getting smaller for nearly two years. And if Republican budget proposals are enacted, this trend will exacerbate. It is a fantasy to think that the private sector will replace these jobs any time soon. Unfortunately with more government reductions ahead that “minus 39,000 jobs” might soon look like the good old days. 

I am a huge fan of Twitter. I’m there every day. But (the routine nature of his statements aside) President Obama was right to answer town hall questions in long form rather than trying to tap out 140 character answers. This country’s problems are complicated. And too many — read this: The House Republicans — favor simple, easy slogans, answers that might even fit on a line of Twitter. But every policy choice ahead has pluses and minuses. There is no easy way to fix for our debt, balance our demographic challenges or anything else.

What we need are thoughtful, messy, imperfect solutions that match the challenges of this particular era. Or as I might write on Twitter: "Solving US money woes in 140 characters equals #fail."


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