The feeds of Twitter are the new marble halls of Congress, at least for the influence set.
President Barack Obama held the first presidential Twitter town hall Wednesday, and lobbying and advocacy groups took to the social media site to barrage the commander in chief with questions, comments and pressure points.
A rapid succession of tweets with the #AskObama hashtag started accumulating hours before Obama started answering questions at 2 p.m. for the event, which focused on jobs and the economy.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce adopted a multimedia approach to urge Americans to ask the president: “Will you help businesses and free enterprise create #jobs by getting government out of the way?”
The chamber reached out to pro-business activists through Facebook, Twitter advertisements, emails, blog and website postings, and the old-fashioned telephone. A news release explained that the chamber “will be the first to use Twitter’s brand new ad platform in a high-profile advocacy effort. A significant buy of promoted accounts and tweets will ensure we’re seen and heard by millions.”
“Social media is changing the world around us, and today you’ll see that the world’s largest business federation hasn’t missed a byte,” Nick Schaper, the business group’s executive director for digital strategy, added on a chamber blog post.
The chamber’s effort, according to early estimates, resulted in nearly half a million tweets, including some from first-time Twitter users, according to Schaper.
“That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make a concerted push to get involved here,” he said. “We’re going to meet a lot of users that are here for the first time.”
But it wasn’t just big business clogging the White House’s Twitter feed in the hopes of flashing talking points before the president.
Community health centers, a potential target of government funding cuts, ramped up their Twitter activism for the town hall.
“We have under way a massive grass-roots mobilization effort,” said Amy Simmons, director of communications for the National Association of Community Health Centers.
The health centers’ suggested questions included, “What is your commitment to protect and expand health centers this year and in the future?” and “With job loss comes loss of insurance, how will Community Health Centers be protected and expanded to provide access?”
The community health centers, which currently serve about 23 million Americans, are slated to double their patient roster, Simmons said. “We have experienced a skyrocketing uninsured patient population,” she added. “Because the health centers rely on public support to survive, they are increasingly relying on the social media tools out there to survive.”
Gretchen Hamel, executive director of the nonpartisan economic policy group Public Notice, said her organization already has a major social media presence and made sure to encourage its followers to tweet questions to the president.
“This is a great opportunity that we have with social media that we actually have to correspond with our elected leadership, including the president,” she said. “There are some serious things that need to be addressed here by both Republicans and Democrats.”
Her group’s Twitter feed at Bankrupting America, an educational project, offered several suggested tweets, including, “#AskObama What is your plan to ensure that we don’t face a debt ceiling crisis like this one again?” and “#AskObama What are some government programs that are efficient? What lessons can be learned from those programs?”
Even some odd bedfellows seemed to pose the same questions to the president. The AFL-CIO’s “Where are the jobs?” tweet, which was retweeted by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), was in sync with one of the Republican National Committee’s suggested questions: “Where Are The Jobs? #AskObama.”
Several other Members of Congress also posted questions to Obama. An analysis by Andrew Einhorn, co-founder and CEO of the media and technology firm OhMyGov Inc., showed that 77 percent of the Member tweets came from Republicans.
Obama quipped that Boehner needed to “work on his typing skills” when responding to the Speaker’s tweet, “After embarking on a record spending binge that left us deeper in debt, where are the jobs?” He then agreed with the Republican that U.S. job creation has not picked up as quickly as it needs to.
Obama mostly took questions from individuals, not the lobbying groups, but he did have a message for well-heeled interests. “The debt ceiling is not something that should be used as a gun against the heads of the American people to extract tax breaks for corporate jet owners or oil and gas companies that are making billions of dollars,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.