Obama & Reddit: More Fat Chat, No Innovation

Though Obama found a new way to communicate with voters, it was hardly a new conversation.


President Obama found a new way to interact with the American electorate through social media site, Reddit. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/MCT)



President Obama found a new way to interact with the American electorate through social media site, Reddit. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun/MCT)

“Hi, I’m Barack Obama, President of the United States. Ask me anything.” That’s the sentence that broke the Internet Aug. 29, when President Obama took to Reddit to answer questions from the public.

George Bush Jr. wouldn’t have been savvy enough to do what is called an AMA (Ask Me Anything), if that had been a thing when he was president, but that speaks to his failings and not to Obama’s strengths.

When mass-mailings were cheap and accessible, politicians sent out pamphlets. When people turned to their radios, FDR sat and spoke to them through it. Then came television and attack ads, with Jackie Kennedy speaking in Spanish to Latino voters and Nixon talking about his beloved dog. Reddit, Twitter and Tumblr are simply new ways to do the same old thing—politicians adapting to new technology to target their audiences.

And what of the AMA itself? The problem with a politician doing an AMA is that it’s not going to do anything surprising. So all in all, was it lightning in a bottle? No. For half an hour, the President had a rapt audience hanging on to his every typed word—emphasis on “typed.” Unlike a press conference, where questions are lobbed at a politician and he answers them as they come, Obama had a chance to (along with an army of interns, I’m sure) pick and choose what questions he wanted to answer.

He answered questions about the space program (a timely nugget, considering Neil Armstrong), his favorite basketball player, how he balances family time (to humanize him), the White House beer recipe and Internet freedom (preaching to the Reddit base). One of his more serious questions was: “What are you going to do to end the corrupting influence of money in politics during your second term?” Another serious question was a lengthy, anecdotal query about the disillusionment of the youth and the increasingly dire prospects of recent graduates, couched in terms of student loans and unemployment rates.

The first question Obama answered in the vein of a constitutional law professor. He turned the second into a political talking point, drawing not from his own personal experiences as someone who took out student loans to pay for school, but as a president who has passed laws he believes will help students and wants to pass more. He passed some blame across to the Republicans and maintained that his policies, if re-elected, will help the askers’ generation. It was the same answer he would have given in a stump speech, and I’m willing to bet he only got most of his audience to listen because he did it on Reddit. Had he said the same words on “Face The Nation,” I doubt any of his general target audience that is less or not active on social media sites like Reddit would have heard it, or cared.

Just as it has become easier for the “regular” public to use interface communication in place of face-to-face chatter, it has become the status quo for politicians to, as the public does, speak more informally. Politicians are usually framed as being out-of-touch and ill-suited for modernity; they’re generally old, from another generation and they talk about taxes and deficits and things that are boring to youthful college students. But people forget that politicians, generally, are in the business of people. They’re in the business of communication and the minute they have a new way to get you to listen to them is the minute they’re answering questions on Reddit and posting weekly videos on YouTube.

So all in all, was it lightning in a bottle? No. It was just new, and slightly different, just as new and different as the next big form of communication will be.