Beyond Obama's Town Hall

President Obama fielded eight questions from guests at his town hall event Thursday, including one from the instantly famous eight-year-old Ethan Lopez. It is obviously great for the president to directly interact with citizens, especially as the nation makes such big choices about how to address the economic crisis. Why should the opportunity be arbitrarily limited, however, to people who happened to attend a packed presidential event in one part of the country?

There's no good answer.

At least, not anymore. People used to argue that local events were the only way for a president to hear directly from citizens, but network technology has opened up our civic possibilities, as the Obama campaign showed. It's past time we used these tools to open up the Presidency.

That's what we're trying to do with the new project Ask The President -- as the Columbia Journalism Review explains in a new piece:

An idea whose time has come...came this morning. A coalition of journalistic outlets-- among them The Nation, The Washington Times, the Personal Democracy Forum,, and Color of Change--launched "Ask The President," an initiative aimed at including citizen questions in presidential press conferences. The process is straightforward: users submit questions they want President Obama to answer, and other users vote on the question they most want to hear asked--one vote per IP address .... This generates, in turn, a list of most-popular questions. The coalition of participating outlets then selects a credentialed journalist to attend the next press conference; that journalist, based on his or her judgment and on what's already been addressed at the conference, will select one of the questions from the list to ask Obama.

The journalist in question would be there solely to represent the citizens' query; he or she, per Ask The President's plan, wouldn't take question time away from the standing pool of White House reporters. Which means that, for the initiative to work, President Obama will have to agree to take part in it--to call on the citizen-representative journalist in addition to his traditional-journalist slate.

But, then, this is a president, of course, who has pledged to make his administration "the most open and transparent in history"; he'd be hard-pressed not to go along with the initiative. "The East Room press conferences are among the most exclusive and least democratic public gatherings in American politics," Ari Melber writes in a Nation article introducing the initiative; "the White House controls who attends and who gets called on.... Obama has repeatedly pledged a more innovative, interactive government. Wide public engagement in "Ask the President"--and strong political support for Obama's participation--can make that pledge a reality."

Well, it can start to make that pledge a reality. My question for Obama: how quickly will you pledge your participation?

Good question.

There are plenty more -- and you can add your own -- at the Ask The President site.

Friday's Washington Times features this news article about Ask The President.

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