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..."
"You have an opportunity," she said, "and you either take it or leave it."
"I like I know him a little more," said Wedel. "That there was a connection. He should definitely do this with more people. I've seen some of what they do with YouTube," as in previous attempts to asynchronously engage the president with video questions submitted by the public. "But this is way better than that. I hope that what happened today doesn't mean that they back off."
How did Wedel come to be in a digital room with the president of the United States in the first place? She's active on YouTube, she explained, "and I saw that little red telephone," an icon the company put up last week to collect questions. "I though, 'what the heck is that?' I clicked on it, and submitted [a video question on H1B visas]. I really had no idea." On just last Friday, after work, she said, she got a call from a contact at Google. The company asked her to explain further the thinking behind the question. An hour later, said Wedel, event moderator Steve Grove of Google, called back and asked her to participate. She was asked to polish her question a bit, and to come up with a second question for Obama.
From there, things moved quickly. "I talked to them on Friday, and they were in my house Sunday. I basically had Saturday to clean." She points to her two children. "When I told them that Google was coming to our house, my 7 year-old was like, 'Google has people?' It was so cute. They were more excited about that than the fact that I was going to be talking to the president."
Of course, Google has people, and the company has something of a weird role in all this -- facilitators of the platform, selector of questions, moderator, and partner to the White House. It's a curious circumstance, and one that puts the company largely in the driver's seat.
Part of the company's tasks: explaining to participants just what the heck they were engaging in. Google sent a rep from Austin to her home, said Wedel, as well as a technician from Canada, equipped with just a few monitors and "a tiny webcam like you can buy at Walmart." Few of the chosen questioners knew what a Google+ hangout was, said Wedel, and Sunday featured a crash course in the tool as well as a dry run of the event, sans White House participation. The video "hangout" was new to Wedel, she said, but she liked it immediately. "Seeing their smiles, I could feel their energy, even though they weren't in the room. You can't see emotion in text, but there was something different about this. That's when I thought, this is going to be cool."
"Google did tell us that this was the president, and that you need to be respectful," said Wedel. "But we're all adults. We know that. But we also have freedom of speech, and we're able to go to our leaders and tell them how we feel."
Google inquired about her politics, said Wedel, but made it clear that she didn't have to respond. She called herself a "good Republican," saying, "I didn't vote for him four years ago. But, she added, "I have been so disappointed with the presidential race. I haven't seen anybody who would have been a good replacement. I know how Obama is now. I know how he rolls. So I'd probably vote him back in."
As for that resume of her husband? "It's in Google's hands now, and we'll see what it comes to."
When we previewed the Google+ event, we talked a bit about how Obama, as president of the United States, seems to share much in common with American teenagers. Both are isolated and experimenting with digital tools to find ways to connect with other humans, often ones who are far removed geographically. The topic came up last night. One of Wedel's fellow questioners (there were five), Ramon Ray, a technologist from New Jersey, asked the president during a round of soft, personal questions about life in the White House. "If you ever want Doritos, or Snickers, or Coke, late at night," said Ray, "you can't walk outside and get it. How do you feel about that, that you can't just walk out the White House door on your own?"
"It's actually the toughest thing about being president," said Obama, with feeling. "Look, this is the greatest job on earth, and it's such an honor to serve. But it is true that sometimes you get a little stir crazy."
By the way, for those who watched the event, a slightly odd moment near the end might have jumped out. During that personal question round, Wedel asked Obama if he would do a little jig. Obama demurred. What was that about? It's a YouTube meme thing, explained Wedel. An extremely popular video on the site is a minute-and-a-half clip of then-candidate Obama shaking it on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" back in 2007; one version has 12 million hits and counting.
"It's so funny," said Wedel. "You've got to watch it."