Obama jabs Republicans at Facebook town hall

The president takes questions from employees and Web participants on topics like the economy, immigration, and health care. He also takes aim at Republicans' deficit reduction plan.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
3 min read
President Obama and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg hold town hall in Palo Alto.
President Obama and Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg hold town hall at the company's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. Declan McCullagh/CNET

PALO ALTO, Calif.--President Obama's visit here this afternoon to Facebook's campus was billed as an opportunity for him to "connect with Americans across the country" through a virtual "town hall" meeting.

But it also proved to be an opportunity for the president to throw political punches at Republicans in an ongoing tussle over deficit reduction, tax policy, and a looming spat over raising the debt limit.

A deficit reduction plan recently proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican House Budget committee chairman, is "fairly radical," Obama said. Ryan aims to reduce government spending by at least $4 trillion over the next decade.

"I wouldn't call it particularly courageous," Obama said. He added: "If all we're doing is spending cuts, and we're not discriminating about it, if we're using a machete instead of a scalpel...then the deficit could actually get worse because we could slip back into another recession."

The event was described as a "Shared Responsibility and Shared Prosperity" town hall meeting open to Facebook employees that was also broadcast through Livestream. It will be available as video on demand "shortly after the event," a Facebook representative said.

President Obama and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg hold town hall in Palo Alto.
President Obama and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg hold town hall at company headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. Declan McCullagh/CNET

"What Facebook allows us to do is make sure this isn't just a one-way conversation," Obama told a few thousand people who gathered here this afternoon. "Not only am I speaking to you, but you're speaking back. We're in a conversation. We're in a dialogue."

Hosting today's event was Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who said he was a bit nervous about the town hall. Obama joked, to applause, that it was his appearance that convinced the famously informal founder to dress up: "I'm the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie. Thank you. I'm very proud of that." (Both then removed their jackets.)

Zuckerberg asked questions mainly about the economy, immigration, and health care. Privacy did not come up. Nor did marijuana legalization, which was a topic that received significant public attention at this type of event before. (Zuckerberg ended the event by giving Obama what looked a lot like a Facebook hoodie.)

A few protesters stood outside on Page Mill Road with signs saying "stop spending." While most of the people inside the warehouse-like space appeared to be Facebook employees and journalists, more than 100 people had queued up at the "invited guest" entrance and security checkpoint an hour before Obama arrived. Inside, before the event started, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, made the rounds on the stage floor.

Probably the best applause line of the event was on immigration reform, in particular for foreign citizens educated in the United States. "If we've got smart people who want to come here and start businesses," especially if they have advanced degrees, "why don't we want them to stay?" Obama asked. "Why do we want to send them someplace else?...These are job generators."

The White House took questions via the Internet--but, in a departure from previous online town halls, did not allow the public to vote on which questions the president should be asked.

That move appears designed to limit the influence of Americans who have previously flooded the virtual polls to press Obama on legalizing marijuana.

Obama's March 2009 town hall used Google Moderator to let the public cast 3.6 million votes that ranked questions about legalizing marijuana at the top of the "green jobs," "financial stability," and "budget" sections (and came in a close second place in the health care section too). Sample question: "What are your plans for the failing, 'War on Drugs,' that's sucking money from tax payers and putting non-violent people in prison longer than the violent criminals?"

Obama replied by saying he would not support changing federal drug laws that make even possession of pot a crime. "No, I don't think this is a good strategy to grow our economy," he said.

A January 2011 town hall that Obama conducted with YouTube also took a legalize-pot detour, with about 198 of the top 200 ranked questions dwelling on that topic.

After the Facebook event, Obama will head to San Francisco for an event at the Masonic auditorium and a $35,800-per-plate fundraising dinner hosted by Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com. Tomorrow he heads to Los Angeles for more fundraising (pay $10,000 and you'll get a photo with the president).

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) makes the rounds before the president appears.
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) makes the rounds before the president appears. Declan McCullagh/CNET

Last updated at 3:10 p.m. PT