Obama's Twitter town hall draws thousands

U.S. President Barack Obama answered questions from Twitter users across the U.S. in a town hall meeting Wednesday that used the popular social media service and focused on jobs and the economy.
U.S. President Barack Obama didn't keep to Twitter's 140 character limit during his online town hall, choosing instead to have Twitter and White House staff condense his answers. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama got an avalanche of questions on Wednesday at a town hall forum through Twitter, the popular social media service.

Of the many thousands that streamed in, he answered 18 in a familiar, spoken explanatory style that well-exceeded the limited length of a tweet.   

Obama's first answer, to a question on mistakes made in handling the recession, was relatively short by his standards. It still amounted to about 2,300 characters — 2,160 longer than a tweet can be.

"I know, Twitter, I'm supposed to be short," Obama conceded in the midst of another multi-layered response about college costs.

The White House had warned this might happen.

"He's the leader of the free world," presidential spokesman Jay Carney said. "He decides how short his answers will be."

The broader image was one of a president up for re-election and eager to connect directly with those using the ever-popular communication site, especially younger voters whose enthusiasm will be vital to his bid for another term.

The president started by sending out what he called his first "live tweet" by using a laptop set up on a lectern.

"How about that," Obama declared to his East Room audience and those watching on TV or online.

His tweet set the tone of the economic discussion. Obama asked followers what they would cut, and what spending they would protect, to trim the deficit (the debate that has Washington's divided government in a stalemate.)

'Where are the jobs?'

Twitter selected the questions for the president, and one was from House Speaker John Boehner, who asked Obama, "After embarking on a record spending binge that left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?"

"This is a slightly skewed question," Obama said of his political rival's inquiry.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks about a tweet from U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner on a screen behind him during his first ever Twitter Town Hall in the East Room at the White House. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

The president went on to answer Boehner's question by noting that the economy is creating jobs, though not at a fast enough pace.

The town hall moderator, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, made sure to reflect the immediacy of Twitter that embodies so much of its interactive appeal. He posed questions to Obama that had come in since the event began and read responses from those who answered Obama's own tweet.

Obama fielded questions on college costs, immigration, collective bargaining rights, the debt limit, manufacturing jobs, the housing crisis and many other topics as Twitter users sent queries in by the tens of thousands.

A handful of journalists from newspapers around the country were asked by Twitter to join the event as "curators," a role that entailed trying to generate questions on the economy from Twitter users and helping the company to identify trends in the inquiries.

Obama's answers condensed

The White House used its official Twitter account to boil Obama's answers down to 140 characters or less. Twitter was also retweeting the condensed answers.

For example, when Obama was asked about protecting collective bargaining rights, his answer ran more than 2,600 spoken characters.

The White House summarized him in two consecutive Tweets: "Collective bargaining responsible for so many benefits/protections we take for granted on the job ... All of us will have to make adjustments for 21st century, but principle of collective bargaining must be protected".

The town hall also marked the first White House "Tweetup" — that's an in-person gathering of people who are connected through Twitter. The White House invited about 30 people who follow the administration's official Twitter account to come to Washington to take part in Wednesday's event.