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Obama courts youth vote at Facebook town hall

U.S. President Barack Obama pulled a page from his 2008 campaign playbook on Wednesday when he took his town hall-style gathering to Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto.

The conversation, which was moderated by 26-year-old Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and live-streamed online, was an obvious effort to court the youth vote for the 2012 election, a group that helped usher him into office in 2008.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“The main reason we wanted to do this is, first of all, because more and more people, especially young people, are getting their information through different media,” Obama said at the beginning of the town hall.

In an hour-long Q&A—pre-vetted questions came from the audience and via online submissions—Obama addressed the national debt, deficits, immigration, and education.

The substance of Obama’s remarks were fairly ho-hum (you can read the full transcript here). Many of his remarks were standard Democratic-speak: The country should invest in renewable energy and education, reform its immigration laws, and raise taxes for the wealthy (to which Zuckerberg replied, “I’m cool with that”).

But the format, location, and approach of the event signaled a keen awareness that young voters could hold the key to his reelection.

For a generation that’s dependent on—if not downright enchanted with—Facebook, the town hall’s location lent it a buzzy, exclusive veneer. That Obama and Zuckerberg, the high priest of social media, appear chummy  in person gives the president some Generation Next credibility.

And the fact that the discussion was live-streamed, and that the public was invited to participate via Facebook itself (despite attempts by a conservative group to gum up the works), spoke volumes. Specifically: If you speak geek, learned to use a computer before you could read, and you see a smartphone as both a necessity and an accessory, then this is the guy you want as president. Hell, this is the guy you’d even consider “friending” on Facebook.

It may be a clever move. Campaign consultants are already banking on the importance of social and mobile media for 2012 election organizing. And in 2008, Obama was able to turn out the youth vote like no other candidate in American history.

But Obama’s also knows how to play the youth crowd just right. Before addressing a 700-member audience of primarily (Gen X and Y) Facebook employees on Wednesday, Obama summoned a cool-professor demeanor by taking off his suit coat before taking a casual perch on a stool as if he were about to deliver a university lecture. He acknowledged that he was addressing a “pretty young crowd,” and that many of them were in diapers during the Clinton administration.

And then, after nearly an hour of wonky policy talk, he rallied the troops with a rousing civics lesson of sorts:

It hasn’t been that long since Election Day, and we’ve gone through some very, very tough times and we’ve still gotten a lot done. … So rather than be discouraged, I hope everybody is willing to double down and work even harder. Regardless of your political affiliation, you’ve got to be involved, especially the young people here, your generation. If you don’t give us a shove, if you don’t give the system a push, it’s just not going to change. And you’re going to be the ones who end up suffering the consequences. But if you are behind it, if you put the same energy and imagination that you put into Facebook into the political process, I guarantee you there’s nothing we can’t solve.

And with that, Obama cheerily accepted a purple Facebook hoodie from Zuckerberg, who told him, “in case for some reason you want to dress like me…”

Let’s see how long it takes before that hoodie makes an appearance on the campaign trail.