WASHINGTON (AP) - Call it Round Two of the news conference, with
a big Internet twist.
President Barack Obama took questions from the White House press corps on Tuesday in a prime-time, East Room session that represented the most formal and time-honored of president-and-reporter interactions. On Thursday, he is taking to that same room for another public grilling - this time by regular folks armed with questions submitted via the Internet and in person, as part of a political strategy to engage Americans directly.
"It's a way for the president to do what he enjoys doing out on the road, but saves on gas," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.
By 7 a.m. Thursday, the White House Web site had already logged more than 77,000 questions.
Obama used the Internet to build a grass-roots movement that delivered the presidency and raised unheard-of money. Now in power, he is employing the same online network and style to speak - unfiltered - with Americans.
The president already has taken that tactic on the road, spending two days on the West Coast last week at town hall-style meetings and appearing on Jay Leno's late-night talk show. It offered easier questions and a chance to get his message to the widest possible audience.
"It's not a whole lot different than were we in California doing the meeting," Gibbs said. "It's just we'll have people hooked up from a lot of different places all over the country, but he'll be able to do all that from the East Room."
Already, the White House is connecting the old-school press
conference with the new-media event. It will be an easy contrast
between skeptical reporters and supporter-selected questions.
Political operatives say the White House's strategy is a way to reach a demographic key to Obama's election.
"In the new world of online media, formal press conferences are just one element or program to get the message out - to those, usually older, who watch such things on TV. The online version he is doing is an alternative way to get out the same message, in this case on the budget, targeted toward a different audience, usually younger," said Morley Winograd, a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore who now runs the Institute for Communication Technology Management at the University of Southern California.
"In both cases the questioners are just props - or, in some cases, foils - for the star, Obama, to deliver his message. But in the latter case, they get to self-nominate instead of be selected by elites," Winograd said.
In a way, it's part campaign-style politics and part "American Idol," said political strategist Simon Rosenberg.
"Barack Obama is going to reinvent the presidency the way he reinvented electoral politics," said Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network and a veteran of presidential campaigns. "He is allowing everyday people to participate in a way that would've been impossible in the old media world."
Obama's campaign allowed supporters to organize themselves to go door-to-door and raise money. Because of that, many felt an ownership of the campaign and devoted countless hours to giving
Obama the Democratic Party's nomination and then the presidency.
Obama's aides are taking that step forward, incorporating tools that let visitors to the White House Web site pick the questions Obama will answer, turning the president's Thursday event into a democratic press conference.
"Average people get to shape the outcome, like 'American Idol,"' Rosenberg said. "This is not a couch-potato age. Average people are expecting to be part of the process."
Yet the process lends itself to softer questions and ones the White House is eager to answer, Republicans noted.
"The president is going back to the safe confines he was always most comfortable with, in this case a friendly audience where the focus is on the sale rather than the substance," GOP strategist Kevin Madden said.
Obama remains a popular figure, although the country and Congress are reluctant to embrace his budget proposals. Aides say that the more the president talks about his plans - and frames his budget proposal through real-world needs - the more Americans would be swayed.
In that vein, Obama aides want to keep the questions about energy, health care and education, the three key priorities in his first budget document. Some of the questions will be from the Web site, others via YouTube and some from an audience of about 100 people representing teachers, nurses and small-business employees.
"The president just thinks it's another opportunity to talk directly with the American people about the challenges that we have, the choices and the decisions that we're making, and the path that we're taking to get us back to prosperous days," Gibbs said.
On the Net:
White House online town hall: