In an online "hangout" with Americans, Obama found a tough questioner in a 29-year-old mother from Texas.
The White House last night held the first-ever presidential "hangout," the latest in a line of administration experiments with social technologies, this time with Google's newish multi-camera live streaming Google+ platform. There was, as it turns out, a breakout star: one Jennifer Wedel, a 29 year-old mother of two and State Farm employee from Fort Worth, Texas, selected to participate on the basis of a video question she submitted on H1B visas. What was so eye and ear catching about her exchange with President Obama was her willingness to inject a little bit of her own reality into the presidential bubble.
Here's how it went down. Wedel opened by raising the issue of her husband, a 40 year-old semiconductor engineer who, after seven years or so at Texas Instruments, lost his job three years ago and has been unemployed since.
"My question for you," said Wedel to Obama, "is why does the government continue to issue and extend H1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?" Obama began his response, and it quickly became clear that a long, Obamesque answer was in the offing. (Jump ahead to about six minutes into the archived video to catch the exchange.)
There's actually a great need for engineers in high tech, explained the president. "What industry tells me is that they don't have enough highly-skilled engineers." He then shifted tacks a bit, in what looked like an attempt to connect. "If your husband's in that field," said Obama, "then we should get his resume and I'll forward it to some of these companies that tell me they can't find enough engineers in this field." That prompted polite chuckling, mostly, it seemed, from Obama and moderator Steve Grove. "It's going to vary, but as a basic matter, there's a huge demand for engineers in the country right now," explained Obama to a woman who had just explained that her engineer husband can't find a job right now. He went on.
"I understand that...," interjected Wedel.
"And so...," continued Obama.
"But," said Wedel.
"Yeah...," said Obama, who then gestured for Wedel to continue.
She did. "Given the list [of engineering openings] that you're getting, we're not getting that." In your State of the Union, she said, you called on business leaders to do what they can to bring jobs back. "Why," she asked, "do you think the H1B program is so popular with big corporations?"
Obama, though, preferred to focus on why what he's hearing from said corporations wasn't matching Wedel's stated experience. "It is interesting to me...," he began, and then switched approaches. "I meant what I said. If you send me your husband's resume, I'd be interested in finding out exactly what's happening right there, because the word that we're getting is that somebody in that kind of high-tech field, that kind of engineer, should be able to find something, ah, right away." He asked again for her husband's resume, and Wedel assured the president that she'd be taking him up on the offer.
Perhaps you had to be there, but it was a unique moment: the president challenged in a respectful yet not overly-respectful way, rather like conversations that normal humans routinely have in their day-to-day lives.
Later in the hour-long event, Wedel again jumped in when Obama went on about the importance of a college degree.
"He's big on the idea that if you're going to have a high-paying job," said Wedel, when I reached her by phone last night, "you've got to have higher education. But I have two girls. How can I tell them, 'you've got to go to college,' when they look at their father? So I didn't want scripted answers on that. I wanted him to be real, that I'm Obama and here's what I have to say."
Late last night, Wedel reviewed the H1B visa exchange. "I felt like he didn't want to discuss it with me too much," she said. His answer began to feel like a lecture, and "I don't like that. I have two young kids, and the wool doesn't get pulled over my eyes easily. Perhaps they should have checked me out more," she said, laughing, "though, of course, Google wants a good show. I don't know if I'll ever get another interview with the president, but I wanted him to know. I don't know if I stumped him or what, but I didn't want him to give me an easy, brush-off answer. How many times does a regular citizen get to talk to the president? I just wanted to say, 'this is an issue.' I wanted him to hear what I had to think." In the end, she said, she was pleased with her engagement with Obama. "It was more of a conversation than most people get."
"People told me that I interrupted the president, and I said, 'No I didn't." She laughed. "But he's a social media president. We've never been able to talk to the president in that way, so I did want to thank him for that." She suggested that the whole thing passed in a blur. "Once he said that about my husband's resume, I kind of lost hearing. Holy..."