President Barack Obama surprised the Internet yesterday by doing a Reddit "AMA".
For those of you not familiar with Reddit: First off, congratulations. Second, AMAs, being an acronym for “ask me anything,” are question and answer sessions where celebrities subject themselves to unfiltered queries and opinions from Internet people. And since Internet people are some of the most earnestly inquisitive and not-at-all-horrible folks in the world, you can imagine what treasure troves of insight these sessions are.
To say that President Obama is the most famous celebrity to ever do an AMA would be something of an understatement, as most participants seem to be TV writers, bass players from forgotten 90s bands, and video game pundits.
President Obama gave only a few minutes lead-time before the questions started, and he stayed online for only about a half-hour. Reddit offered several “verifications” that the account logged on as “Barack Obama” was, in fact, him. Site administrators and community managers repeatedly posted messages that the AMA was real, and the top of the thread included a link to a Tweet from Obama’s validated Twitter account, next to the words, “Proof it’s me”. There was also a link to a photo of Obama sitting at a desk in front of a laptop, described by the words “Verification Photo”.
There two things to say about these “verifications”. First, the picture’s suggestion that Obama simply bellied up to a laptop and typed his answers himself, without the help of speechwriters or other such campaign-y guys, is just laughable. The Tweet, being made from a verified account, constitutes somewhat better evidence and at least shows that the Obama administration is behind the AMA. But it speaks nothing to President Obama’s personal participation, basically amounting to one of those messages at the end of campaign commercials, “My name is So and So, and I approve this message.”
This is not to say that Obama’s personal participation really matters or should be called into question, rather that the absurdity of such “pictorial verification” very much undermines the supposed tech-savviness that his campaign people were presumably trying to reflect with the AMA, as this supposed “verification” was directed at Internet people, who would know more than anyone that online pictures rarely reflect reality.
Second, the aesthetics of that picture are just odd. The room in the background looks like some sort of underground bunker… Did Obama retire to the White House bomb shelter to get online? Is the wireless Internet better down there? Also, why is this fortress of Web-itude lit by such a shitty lamp? One presumes the President could spring for something better than one of those cheap numbers you buy at Target and assemble at home.
So after the inevitable orgy of Retweets, Facebook Likes, and Tumblr posts following these “verifications,” how did the AMA go?
Basically, it went almost exactly as one would imagine, as in, pretty lamely, with one or two bright spots. While the idea of the President of the free world ostensibly appearing in an online Q&A has a certain novelty to it -- beyond the obvious campaign motivation of showing he’s “youth-oriented,” that is -- it didn’t actually reflect the Internet’s promise of real time interface. The level of Obama’s interaction with his constituency could have been better achieved in a number of other venues, from a “town hall” meeting to a television address.
But for those of you who like boilerplate answers to carefully vetted questions, we picked out some choice samples from the transcript. (Note: We’ve left the grammatical and spelling errors as they appeared on Reddit, without adding [sic] notations after every mistake. So if you see any “its/it’s” confusion, blame the President, not our copyeditor.)
One question, asked by an unemployed law school-graduate, gave President Obama some properly sanitized tough talk. “What can I say to encourage those in similar situations as I am to show up again in November? What hope can you offer us for your second term?” queried this well-spoken hard-luck case.
In his answer, Obama struck a tone somewhere between the homespun curmudgeon-speak of Wilford Brimley in a commercial for Quaker Oats and a wide-eyed Political Science undergraduate.
Said Obama, in part:
"I understand how tough it is out there for recent grads. You're right - your long term prospects are great, but that doesn't help in the short term. Obviously some of the steps we have taken already help young people at the start of their careers. Because of the health care bill, you can stay on your parent's plan until you're twenty six. Because of our student loan bill, we are lowering the debt burdens that young people have to carry. But the key for your future, and all our futures, is an economy that is growing and creating solid middle class jobs - and that's why the choice in this election is so important."
Obama went on to describe “the other party’s” solution to our economic woes...
“more taxs cuts for the wealthy (paid for by raising tax burdens on the middle class and gutting investments like education) and getting rid of regulations we've put in place to control the excesses on wall street and help consumers. These ideas have been tried, they didnt work, and will make the economy worse.”
Fair enough, but what have you got that they haven’t, Bamz?
I want to keep promoting advanced manufacturing that will bring jobs back to America, promote all-American energy sources (including wind and solar), keep investing in education and make college more affordable, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in science, and reduce our deficit in a balanced way with prudent spending cuts and higher taxes on folks making more than $250,000/year.
Ah well, as long as we’re investing in “wind and solar,” sounds like we’re all one step away from buying a permanent time-share in Margaritaville!
In another question, someone asked about “the recipe for the White House's beer,” as if this was something that people should know about and anticipate, like the McRib. “It will be out soon!” said Obama. “I can tell from first hand experience, it is tasty.”
Continued Obama, in my mind:
I’m just like you! I drink beer! I eat salty snacks and watch sports! I play catch with my Golden Retriever! I help my kids with their homework, and tell them to clean their room! I make love to my wife every Thursday for the agreed upon amount of time before we both turn over to read paperback mystery novels and fall asleep! Oh wait… I don’t do any of those things, because I’m the motherfucking President! There is no White House beer! I have that shit imported from Belgium! Suck it, non-Prezzy!
There was one question I was actually pretty shocked to see addressed, and equally shocked to be answered in so forthright a manner. A Redditor asked, “What are you going to do to end the corrupting influence of money in politics during your second term?” A great question, and shockingly, the answer clearly and succinctly summed up an awfully diffuse issue to a few key points. I’m tempted to say that this back and forth qualifies this whole AMA experiment as a success.
Obama’s answer in full:
Money has always been a factor in politics, but we are seeing something new in the no-holds barred flow of seven and eight figure checks, most undisclosed, into super-PACs; they fundamentally threaten to overwhelm the political process over the long run and drown out the voices of ordinary citizens. We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress - to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who. We should also pass legislation prohibiting the bundling of campaign contributions from lobbyists. Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn't revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight of the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.
Another inquisitive Redditor asked, “What was the most difficult decision that you had to make during this term?”
Obama answered, in part:
The decision to surge our forces in afghanistan. Any time you send our brave men and women into battle, you know that not everyone will come home safely, and that necessarily weighs heavily on you. The decision did help us blunt the taliban's momentum, and is allowing us to transition to afghan lead - so we will have recovered that surge at the end of this month, and will end the war at the end of 2014. But knowing of the heroes that have fallen is something you never forget.
While it’s absolutely plausible that the hardest decision President Obama had to make while in office was ordering the surge in Afghanistan, this could be more because the surge never really made sense, militarily or politically. Of course, admitting as much would be just crazy talk in an election year, hence the trotting out of the “Mission Accomplished” rhetoric.
The take-away from the Obama AMA? Addresses from politicians, whether carried out on digital media or a literal soap-box, are only a jumping off point to get at the truth. Now more than ever, what our leaders say to the citizenry rarely amounts to more than red vs. blue, he said/he said bullshit, from which would be voters need to extrapolate and analyze accordingly.
In other words, meet the New Media, same as the Old Media.