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Obama takes on 'tweeters' in Twitter town hall

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 5:02 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama greets audience members accompanied by Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, during a President Barack Obama greets audience members accompanied by Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — So much for 140 characters or less. A president, it seems, gets to respond to a tweet on his own terms.

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 multilayered response about college costs.

President Barack Obama answers a tweet from House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio during a President Barack Obama answers a tweet from House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Associated Press)

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."

No one seemed that concerned. 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.

So let history show Obama was the first president to host a Twitter town hall at the White House.

He made little news over the course of about an hour, but that wasn't his point.

Obama wanted to get in touch with people outside Washington, promote his agenda, prod Congress and embrace the fast-moving online conversation site that is increasingly seen as a home of national buzz.

President Barack Obama types during his live-tweet as Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey looks on during the first ever Twitter Town Hall, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press) President Barack Obama types during his live-tweet as Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey looks on during the first ever Twitter Town Hall, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press)

The event drew enormous interest on Twitter. Questions streamed in long after the event had finished.

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.)

For the purposes of Twitter, the White House made Obama briefer than he was.

Overall, the town hall felt much like one Obama has had many times since taking office. Even a familiar critic got his voice heard.

President Barack Obama tweets during a President Barack Obama tweets during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Associated Press)

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.

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.

Aides to the president pride themselves on bringing the social media savvy of the Obama presidential campaign to the White House. In addition to the official White House Twitter account, a handful of high-level staffers are regular tweeters, including press secretary Jay Carney, who tweets under the handle (at)PressSec, and communications director Dan Pfeiffer, who goes by (at)dpfeiffer44. The office of Vice President Joe Biden also joined Twitter this week with the handle (at)VP.

President Barack Obama pauses during his live-tweet as Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, during the first ever Twitter Town Hall, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press) President Barack Obama pauses during his live-tweet as Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, during the first ever Twitter Town Hall, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press)

The president's account — (at)BarackObama — is run by his 2012 campaign. The campaign says the president will personally send the occasional tweet, with those messages marked "-BO" to signify that they're coming directly from the president.

Obama used the town hall as an opportunity to deliver a remarkably critical line about Republicans who are fighting with him over raising the nation's borrowing limit. Obama said GOP lawmakers should not use their votes on that matter as "a gun against the heads of the American people" to retain the tax breaks they want for corporate jet owners and oil companies.

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.

President Barack Obama uses a Macbook laptop during his live-tweet during the first ever Twitter Town Hall, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press) President Barack Obama uses a Macbook laptop during his live-tweet during the first ever Twitter Town Hall, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press)

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.

The White House used its official Twitter account, (at)WhiteHouse, 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".

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, left, points to a question on the screen posted by House Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio, during the first ever Twitter Town Hall, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press) President Barack Obama, accompanied by Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey, left, points to a question on the screen posted by House Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio, during the first ever Twitter Town Hall, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (Associated Press)

Tweeters responded en masse with ideas for how to reduce the nation's deficit: cut defense contracting, trim the war on drugs, stop giving money to Pakistan, raise taxes, cut oil subsidies.

As to that first question on mistakes made, Obama allowed that his administration had underestimated the severity of the recession, and so he did not prepare the American people "for how long this was going to take" and the tough choices that lay ahead. Obama also said the problems in the housing market were more stubborn than expected, and he'd had to revamp his assistance programs several times.

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.

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