Barack Obama speaking at Open for Questions
In an event billed as an opportunity for the American people to ask questions of an “open” and “transparent” administration, the only fully identified inquirers plucked from the audience, it turns out, were Obama campaign supporters.
At last week’s “Open for Questions” forum, the full transcript and video of which is posted on the White House website, Obama answered several questions selected from a reported 100,000 queries posted online. He also took a handful of questions, in town hall fashion, from those in attendance at the event.
But according to a Washington Post report, those audience members the president chose included “a member of the pro-Obama Service Employees International Union, a member of the Democratic National Committee who campaigned for Obama among Hispanics during the primary; a former Democratic candidate for Virginia state delegate who endorsed Obama last fall in an op-ed in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star; and a Virginia businessman who was a donor to Obama’s campaign in 2008.”
After answering concerns submitted by online inquirers – including a question about legalization of marijuana that prompted the president to joke about the composition of the online community – Obama invited six audience members to pose questions.
The first questioner, named Ellie, wasn’t fully identified on the White House transcript of the event. The other five, however, were people later pegged as Obama campaign backers.
In the week leading up to the Open for Questions forum, Obama released a promotional video on YouTube in which he said, “One of my priorities as president is opening the White House to the American people, so that folks can understand what we’re up to.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told the Post that Obama has said, “I think it’s important to engage your critics … because not only will you occasionally change their mind but, more importantly, sometimes they will change your mind.”
Those the president engaged, however, included Sergio Salmeron, who told the Post he had worked as a canvasser for the campaign, as well as working with voter registration and translation of campaign materials.
Salmeron told the Post he was invited to Open for Questions by a fellow worker at Organizing for America, the volunteer coordination effort with the homepage www.barackobama.com.
Questioner Carlos Del Toro thanked the president “for all the efforts that you and your administration [have] done on behalf of veterans and also on behalf of small businesses.”
Del Toro also ran as a Democratic candidate for the Virginia Legislature, donated over $2,700 to Democrat candidates in 2008, and endorsed Obama for election in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star:
“Obama will change our economic policies to help middle-class families, promote the growth of small businesses, and increase funding for veterans’ affairs, so no member of our armed services goes without the medical treatment he or she needs and deserves,” Del Toro wrote, in words similar to his comments at Open for Questions.
When Tom Sawner stood to ask his question, he admitted to the audience and the president, “I was honored to serve on your education platform committee.”
Sawner also told the Post that he had no idea prior to the forum that he would be allowed to ask a question.
Bonnee L. Breese, a board member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Local 3 – who asked if Obama would include teachers in determining the definitions of charter schools and effective educators – asked by the Post if she was an Obama supporter, answered, “Of course!”
Questioner Linda Bock is a nurse who campaigned for Obama and wrote in a gushing Service Employees International Union newsletter following Obama’s election, “Now we have hope. We have President-elect Barack Obama.”
The event’s moderator, Dr. Jerod Bernstein, described himself as the chief economist for Vice President Biden. Bernstein reported that the online questions came from over 92,000 submitters, who asked over 100,000 questions and logged 3.5 million votes to determine which questions would be asked. He made a point of emphasizing that the questions submitted were not prescreened in any way before being posted.
“We will ask President Obama some of the most popular questions submitted through WhiteHouse.gov,” Berstein told those assembled at Open for Questions, “then President Obama will take questions from folks here in this room.”
According to White House spokesman Nicholas S. Shapiro, those in attendance were invited – as Salmeron described – through various community organizations.
“The audience was composed of approximately 100 people, including teachers, nurses, small business owners, and community leaders,” Shapiro told the Post. “The White House reached out to a number of community groups and the chamber of commerce and those groups invited their folks to come and participate.”