Democracy in the 21st Century

Welcome to democracy 21st Century style.

President Barack Obama conducted the first Internet-based Town Hall meeting yesterday. The White House named the new-era Town Hall, “Open for Questions.” Anyone with an Internet connection could log on to the White House Web site and submit a question. The questions submitted were voted on by Web site visitors and the top vote-getters were addressed by Obama at the meeting. More than 92,000 people submitted questions and more than 3.6 million votes were cast.

Predictably, a lot of questions focused on jobs, the economy and health care. The President fielded Web-generated questions such as “How do you plan to restore education as a right and core cultural value in America?” and “What benefits from the stimulus plan are there to those of us who are paying our mortgages, but living paycheck to paycheck?”

Interestingly, there were many questions and suggestions submitted regarding the legalization of marijuana. A sampling:

“Why is marijuana still illegal? Cigarettes and alcohol are far more harmful, and with the taxes put on the legal distribution of marijuana the US could make millions.”

“Will you consider decriminalizing the recreational/medical use of marijuana(hemp) so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and a multi-billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?””

“Would you support the bill currently going through the California legislation to legalize and tax marijuana, boosting the economy and reducing drug cartel related violence?”

“I have to say that there was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high,” Obama said,  “and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation.  And I don’t know what this says about the online audience . . . we want to make sure that it was answered.  The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”

While the question and Obama’s response generated a lot of laughter, apparently there are many Americans who are taking this seriously and think it is a good idea. While 3.6 million votes doesn’t speak for a whole lot of us (by comparison, ten times as many votes were garnered this week by “American Idol” contestants), it will be interesting to see which direction Americans take our public policy debate as the Internet gives us more direct access to our public officials.

Here’s the White House video of the meeting and complete transcript.


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