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Plenty of 140-character questions, few new answers in Obama's Twitter town hall

After days of anticipation -- a long time in the Internet Age -- President Obama's first Twitter Town Hall on Wednesday ended up covering much of the same ground as a live town hall with the difference that questions were limited to 140 characters.

The Twitter town hall, announced July 1, was part of a White House push to get more involved in social media. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both began personally Tweeting in the past few weeks and the president has held earlier town halls on a White House websiteand on Facebook.

The webcast event had many of the hallmarks of a traditional town hall question-and-answer session: a live audience that the president shook hands with upon entering and a moderator, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who asked the questions. Dorsey's questions were Tweeted on the social media site during the event or earlier in the week, though, and White House staffers were busily condensing the president's sometimes multi-minute spoken answers into terse response Tweets.

President Obama didn't make any breaking news announcements during Wednesday's event, though he did express optimism about reaching a deal with House Republicans on raising the federal debt limit.

Surprisingly, considering the format, there was also little discussion of advances in information technology, though the president several times referenced Twitter as an example of American entrepreneurialism and pointed to Dorsey as someone who could afford to give up the not-yet-expired Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy Americans.

Twitter announced before the event that it would use a hybrid model to pick from among the more than 60,000questions Twitter users had lobbed at the president using the #AskObama hash tag, with an outside company weighing questions based on how many times they were re-Tweeted and a panel of "curators" analyzing economic questions for relevance.

Dorsey stressed before the event that not only did the president not know which questions would be asked in advance, but he didn't either.

The model was evidently something less than fully democratic. An analysis just before the town hall began found that the most re-Tweeted question was about whether marijuana should be legalized to take pressure off U.S. courts and prisons and to raise tax revenue.

That topic made its way into the actual town hall only during the last 15 minutes, though, in a "response" Tweeted during the event itself.

That Tweet listed legalizing marijuana at the top of a short list of proposed reforms. Obama answered the question with a few short sentences stressing prevention and treatment.

Questions from public figures also evidently got more weight.

The fewer than two-dozen questions asked during the 75-minute town hall included one question Tweeted by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, demanding to know why the president hadn't created more jobs. It included another from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asking why Obama hadn't insisted on a debt ceiling deal with Republicans at the same time he'd agreed to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two years.

That prompted harsh words from some Tweeters, including O'Reilly media blogger Alex Howard, who complained about the "missed [opportunity] to #AskObama q's by people w/o access."

Some Tweeters also bridled at the restrictive format of the event.

When a Tweeter with the handle RenegadeNerd asked Obama whether he'd invoke his executive authority to raise the federal debt ceiling if Congress refused to vote to raise it-- a move with constitutional implications -- the one-time constitutional law professor dodged, saying he expected to reach a deal with House Republicans within "the next week to two weeks," before the constitutional question is broached.

"Hey, RenegadeNerd," a Tweeter asked shortly afterward. "Do you think @barackobama answered your question?"

"This format is maddening," another Tweeter, Dan Primack, said. "Some of the #askobama questions are yes/no, but Jack [Dorsey] won't follow up."

Dorsey did ask a few followup questions Tweeted in response to earlier answers from the president, but none of them forced Obama into a more specific answer than he gave the first time.

White House staff evidently struggled during the event to rapidly translate the president's spoken answers into Twitter form.

"Obama on tech vs. manufacturing for recovery: not either/or, need tech for innovation, manufacturing to make the innovations," read one tortured Tweet from the White House that came in at 129 characters, just shy of the site's 140-character limit.

Other times, White House staff posted several Tweets to summarize a single answer, sometimes leading to strange non sequiturs, such as "Obama: ...For that reason and others, we need immigration reform that is comprehensive."

The event did contain a few personal moments from Obama -- of the style that rarely make their way into presidential news conferences but are standard fare at traditional town halls.

Obama responded to a question about the rising cost of higher education, for instance, by noting that he completed Harvard Law School with about $60,000 in debt and that, for nearly a decade, he and first lady Michelle Obama were putting more money toward student loan payments each month than toward paying off their mortgage.

He also described witnessing the sometimes-counterproductive effects of federal welfare programs while he was a community organizer in Chicago before moving on to defend the rejiggered welfare programs rolled out during the 1990s.

Twitter opinions on the event were mixed as it wound down.

"Solid, um, 3/4ths of @townhall questions [could] be answered by linking people to @whitehouse talking points," Tweeted Nancy Skola, a science writer in Brooklyn.

Other Tweeters were more forgiving.

"It's an extraordinary day when a president comes online to engage and talk as HIMSELF," Tweeted Kate-Madonna Hindes, a media writer. "We should be honored and thankful."

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