President Obama defends economic record in first Twitter town hall

President Obama showed off his tech savvy in a “Twitter Town Hall” Wednesday, typing his own question to the American public on a laptop and ribbing House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for including a formatting error in a tweet.

“John obviously needs to work on his typing skills,” Obama joked.

When the event was announced last week, the White House asked Twitter users to submit questions to the president using the hashtag #AskObama. Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey moderated the discussion, posing questions that had been selected by eight Twitter users from across the country.

Obama answered the questions verbally in front of an audience of about 140 people in the East Room of the White House. He did not limit his answers to 140 characters, a discrepancy he noted at the end of one lengthy statement.

“I know on Twitter, I’m supposed to be short,” Obama said.

The White House said the event was held as a way to reach out directly to the American public and bypass the media filter. It was also a public-relations victory for Twitter, which has grown dramatically in the last year. Obama used his Twitter account for the first time just one month ago.

In a conference call Tuesday, the White House’s director of new media, Macon Phillips, promised that the town hall would “take advantage of the real-time nature of Twitter.” Indeed, many of the questions were written just minutes before Dorsey posed them to Obama.

The discussion focused mostly on the economy and job creation. Dorsey noted that “America’s financial security” is one of the most talked-about topics on Twitter and that Obama is mentioned in about half of those conversations.

The first question asked what Obama would have done differently in his handling of the recession. He said he would have done a better job explaining the severity of the problem to the public and that he would have done more to address the housing crisis.

Although the event was pitched as an opportunity for the public to pose questions to the president, two of the tweets came from public figures: from Boehner and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

Boehner asked, “After embarking on a record spending binge that left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?”

Obama said the question was “slightly skewed” but acknowledged that the country’s job growth has not been sufficient. He argued that the deal the administration struck with congressional Republicans in December to extend payroll tax cuts has helped improve the economy. He also said that trillions of dollars in upgrades to the nation’s aging infrastructure are much-needed improvements that would put people back to work.

Republicans are resistant to new spending programs, but Obama said he’s “sure eventually the Speaker will see the light.”

Kristof asked, “Was it a mistake to fail to get Republicans to commit to raise the debt ceiling at the same time tax cuts were extended?” The question was one of the most heavily re-tweeted posts.

Obama defended his handling of last year’s tax-cut negotiations, claiming he got “a much better deal than I think a lot of people expected us to get.” He was also sharply critical of congressional Republicans’ strategy of only agreeing to raise the federal debt limit in exchange for spending cuts from the administration.

“The debt ceiling is not something that should be used as a gun against the heads of the American people,” Obama said.

The president avoided directly answering a tweet that asked whether he was willing to unilaterally issue an executive order to raise the debt limit under the legal argument that failing to meet the nation’s financial obligations is unconstitutional. “I don’t think we should even get to the constitutional issue. Congress has a responsibility to make sure we pay our bills,” Obama said.

At the beginning of the event, President Obama typed his own question for the American people: “In order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep?”

At the end of the hour-long discussion, Dorsey displayed some of the responses to the question. Obama agreed with suggestions to cut defense spending and subsidies to oil companies while raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. He also said that he supports investing in public financing for campaigns, although he rejected public campaign funds in his own 2008 White House bid.

Obama defended administration spending programs that Republicans decry as unaffordable. He argued that economic growth and technological innovation are only possible through government investment. 

“You would not have Twitter if the Department of Defense and some universities had not made some investments that made the Internet,” Obama said.

This story was originally posted at 6:18 p.m. and updated at 7:27 p.m.