Easing into his 2012 campaign, U.S. President Barack Obama sought to reignite the youthful energy that propelled his 2008 election on Wednesday with a campaign-style visit to the nexus of social communications, Facebook headquarters.
“Don’t get frustrated and cynical about our democracy” even though “Lord knows it’s frustrating,” Obama pleaded at the tail end of a question-and-answer session at the social networking titan’s home base in California’s Silicon Valley.
Mr Obama listed a series of his achievements, including his landmark health law and getting two women on the US Supreme Court, but warned young voters who helped him win the White House in 2008 that he needed them to face challenges like the country’s debt and deficit struggles.
By visiting Facebook headquarters in California’s Silicon Valley, where 26-year-old Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a folk hero, Obama sought to connect to tens of millions of people who have adopted social media as a prime method of communications.
“My name is Barack Obama, and I’m the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie,” said the president, who faces fired-up Republicans and a likely hard battle to a new four-year term, at the beginning of a live-streamed town hall event with Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg, dressed in jeans, sneakers and a tie, and Obama, dressed in a business suit, then took off their jackets before the president started fielding questions about how to reduce the budget deficit, which is projected to hit $1.4 trillion this fiscal year.
“I can’t do it by myself. The only way it happens is if all of you still get involved, still get engaged,” said Mr Obama, whose once sky-high approval ratings have slipped to below the critical 50-per cent threshold in many polls.
Promoting his plan of spending cuts and tax increases for the richest Americans, Obama told the rich Facebook founder that both of them would have to pay more taxes to help out. “I’m cool with that,” the Facebook founder said. “I know you’re okay with that,” replied Barack Obama.
“I know that some of you who might have been involved in the campaign or been energised back in 2008, you know, you’re frustrated that, gosh, it didn’t get done fast enough, and it seems like everybody’s bickering all the time.”
But “rather than be discouraged, I hope everybody is willing to double down and work even harder,” the president said after taking questions from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, his employees, and an online audience.
At the end of the town hall meeting, Mr Zuckerberg presented Obama with a uniform he’s more familiar with: a “Facebook hoodie” – hooded sweatshirt – that Mr Obama pronounced “beautiful” and “a high fashion statement.”
Mr Obama’s visit, part of a barnstorming tour that includes major fund-raising stops, aimed to recapture twin engines of his 2008 White House run, when his campaign tapped into social media as never before and rallied young voters.
The president also branded as “radical” his Republican foes’ calls for steep cuts in health care programs for the elderly and the poor in a bid to pare down a deficit projected to reach $1.6 trillion this year but vowed to work with his opponents to address the issue.
Obama held his deficit-cutting roadshow as policy-makers and financial markets recover from ratings agency Standard & Poor’s threat to downgrade America’s triple-A credit rating on worries Washington won’t address its fiscal woes.
A potential Republican challenger to Obama, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, said Standard & Poor “downgraded the Obama presidency” and that Obama should meet with S&P officials to try to gain their confidence.
With polls showing two out of three Americans saying they think the country is on the wrong track, Mr Obama described young voters “regardless of your political affiliation” as the antidote to the nation’s ills.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he said.
Jon Krosnick, a political science professor at Stanford University, said having Obama on stage with Mark Zuckerberg could help the president with young people.