I spent a nice little chunk of the last day of 2012 in the auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building waiting for President Barack Obama to enter the room and make a statement about the budget negotiations. Being in the 11th hour of the fiscal budget battle, this public engagement event had all the feel of a press conference but without the usual suspects of White House correspondents.
Instead, a friendly group of citizens were invited based on stories submitted when the White House new media team asked “what would you do with $2,000” — the $2,000 we will pay in taxes if there is no budget agreement by midnight December 31, 2012. According to Macon Phillips, director of the White House Office for Digital Strategies, our stories were read, scored, and the high scores were sent up the ranks, et voila! there was an invitation email in my inbox. I was honored to be invited and I said as much in my RSVP. I’m old school. When you receive an invitation from the White House, you go. Cancel all appointments.
What did I say to merit this invitation? The truth. $2,000 could purchase upgrades for my business. My home could use some attention. No doubt my healthcare payments will go up in 2013. Utilities. Food prices continue to go up. Everybody’s gotta eat. I could probably use $2,000 extra.
And What did the President say? I don’t think the President would’ve made any statement about the fiscal negotiations unless he had a break through in his pocket which he did, and something to report. I did take notice it was a “gloves off” moment. You can read for yourself here. See it here.
But the 2 hours leading up to President Obama’s statement, before the cameras entered the room, may have been just as important as the official word. It was great to hear about the process and priorities of the Digital Strategy Office and the Office of Public Engagement headed by Jon Carson. The Digital Strategy Office handles the White House email, social media, as well as the website pages on whitehouse.gov that include the “We the People: Your Voice in Government” petition page. Apparently for Macon he saw an opportunity for a connection with the President’s fiercest critics through this site that included a secession petition created after the President’s victory in November — over 150,000, exceeding the required 25,000 for an official response.
It seems one of the goals and lessons of domestic issues communications is the first go-to for the President is the public just as it was in the campaign.
Macon and Jon took time for a Q&A with we the invited people.
A man in a walker asked why “middle class” is the focus of all policy and there is no talk about the poor or what the administraiton is doing for poor people, many of whom were instrumental in his re-election, especially the victory in Florida he pointed out. John Carson took this one mentioning the unemployment benefits in the negotiations as part of the budget’s aid to the poor. Is that all? It’s too bad during moments like these when a citizen is at the cusp of making a valid point and is so moved to make a lengthier statement when perhaps questions could be more enlightening for everyone. “To everything, there is a season” the bible says. As the man continued to talk, I noticed a number of the citizens in the room groaning. This was not a “Power to the P” moment.
Jon Carson shared a statistic — 93% of Americans believe they are part of the middle class. This statistic was part of Carson’s point about the importance of words. And “middle class” resonates with a majority of American citizens. Words matter. I totally get that. But where did the 93% statistic originate? After doing a little online research, the source that comes to the top is House Speaker John Boehner in an interview on Fox Radio in August 2012:
“93% of Americans believe they’re a part of the middle class. That’s why you hear the President talk about the middle class every day, because he’s talking to 93% of the American people.”
Where did the speaker get his numbers? And if he has a reliable source, I’d have to say, the speaker is spot on. Is the riff between the House and the White House as wide as we’ve been made to believe? At the time of his comment, pundits focused more on Boehner’s remarks about the President/candidate never having a “real job.”
Another question came from a woman who said she was angry about the NRA recommendations for teachers to carry concealed weapons into classrooms a week after the Newtown, CT shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. This citizen wanted to start a movement of mothers to push policy prohibiting guns in classrooms and schools. She had a great acronymn — MAGIC (Mothers Against Guns In Classrooms). Something tells me she also came prepared to be heard. Though not on today’s agenda, her message vibed with the room. Jon suggested teaming up, as the public engagement office does, with similar organizations to build a larger coalition. Ths is how public engagement works. Groups get together with groups. Apparently, the White House’s public engagement office does this when policy needs a partner to message with like the Sierra Club (example mentioned).
There were no questions about foreign policy or global issues.
Lunch break was cut short when we were informed the President was on his way to the auditorium. Reminder, there is only “President’s Time” — a special clock. Before the President’s statement, a reporter from the conservative publication “Human Events” asked me and another citizen on the back row how we felt about tax increases. Again, I told the truth. I really don’t know how I truely feel about anything until something is fact and I have the complete information. Was I giving a Buddhist answer? The quote got into the article and a second comment, more general, about no one liking taxes when the economy’s not robust. I then started chatting with the reporter about his years in DC and our common connections. Gave him a postcard for the Makes-Me-Wanna SHOUT! Pie Baking Challenge. Why not.
But there was something about this citizen press conference that has raised the ire in the press class. The Human Events article is titled “Obama’s middle-class show.”
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza published “Winners and Losers in the Fiscal Cliff Deal” in his column. The president got a win, but also a loss:
Obama’s handling of the fiscal cliff talks felt pitch perfect up until his Monday event with “middle class” citizens. The rally felt too much like a campaign rally — Obama was repeatedly cheered — and the president himself was in a joking mood that didn’t seem to fit the moment. Will it be overshadow the fact that he got a deal? No. But it was an off-key note from the country’s top communicator.
Gee, I never thought I’d see myself in “” in print. “middle class” Thanks Chris for reducing me and my fellow citizens to the “so called” 93%. After chatting with a few people and looking around the room, I learned that we were mostly from the DC, Maryland, Virginia area (convenient for New Year’s Eve), retirees, self-employed, young professionals, perhaps students, former campaign workers.
Is campaigning a new normal in governing and moving policy in a social media era? Years ago I was in the room with then Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner who shared an interesting observation — no decision by the Supreme Court was made without substantial public interest and movement on the issue.
The fact that the citizen press conference has gotten so much flack, says to me, this may have hit an important nerve — in the spirit of Macon’s petition example — connecting. Have we depended on our information handlers for too long? When we’re in a room together — all classes press included, can we be more than resource material? If this is the way the White House is rolling with press conferences on policy in play, I say “Do it again.” I’ll send something to the inbox.