At today's town hall meeting, President Barack Obama answered 13 questions from the public (Download the transcript). At his news conference Tuesday night, he answered 13 questions from the press. And at his first news conference in February, he answered ... 13 questions. Coincidence? I think not.
I have three theories here. The first is that the president considers Q&A sessions to be unlucky, so he takes 13 questions as some kind of occult countermeasure. Admittedly, that's not a likely explanation. More probable is that his team has calculated somehow that a number around a dozen sends the right message to the public. But the simple answer may be that Obama can't fit in more than about 13 answers per event because he just can't stop himself from filibustering. Er, I mean, lecturing. (Under this theory, if Vice President Biden moves up to the top job, the tally will fall to 5 or 6.)
The questions submitted online were limited to 250 characters, which translates to something less than 40 words. Obama burned through more than 1,200 words on one answer alone -- his response to the question, "When can we expect that jobs that have been outsourced to other countries to come back and be made available to the unemployed workers here in the United States?" Of the 104,084 questions submitted online for this morning's session, Obama had time for seven -- six responses to individual Web users, and one to the many who suggested that marijuana be legalized for the sake of creating jobs. Obama dispensed with that in a mere 16 words: "The answer is, no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy." (Of course, it's easy for a first-year president to be concise when asked about legalizing drugs. At that stage of one's tenure, the mandatory answer is some variation of "Just say no.") The president also answered six questions from the small crowd assembled in the East Room of the White House.
It will be interesting to see whether there's any backlash online against Obama taking so few submissions from the Web; after all, Jimmy Carter managed to answer 42 questions from the public when he did a public call-in show in 1977, and he wasn't known for succinct commentary, either. But then, all the White House promised was that it would be "Open for Questions" today. It never said it would open wide.