April 20, 2011— -- President Obama ventured to the heart of Silicon Valley today for a town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters aimed at reconnecting with the tech-savvy voters who energized his 2008 campaign.
The visit, part of a three-day West Coast trip to sell his deficit-reduction plan, is the first by a sitting president to the world's largest social media network.
Obama's trip to Facebook also signals his belief in the growing value of social media to spread his message, organize supporters and raise money as his reelection campaign kicks into gear.
"It would make our jobs a lot easier, if these were the days when a vast majority of the American audience tuned into Walter Cronkite at night and we could just talk to 'Uncle Walter' and get our message out there," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "That's just not the case anymore."
The White House has leveraged an unprecedented array of traditional and new media, on a local and national level, to create greater accessibility to Obama and provide interaction with members of the administration.
The White House Press Office now not only produces a website, blog, YouTube channel, Flickr photo stream, and Facebook and Twitter profiles, but also a mix of original daily video programming, including live coverage of the president's appearances and news-like shows that highlight his accomplishments.
The administration launched an upgraded iPhone app and new Android app Tuesday complete with a feature that alerts users every time Obama is about to speak. The White House says more than 400,000 people have downloaded the app.
"What you're seeing on the Internet is transparency at its finest," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in an interview. "We are giving citizens across the country direct access to decision makers in the government."
University of Minnesota journalism professor and political communication analyst Heather LaMarre and other political communication experts say the Obama White House is continuing the policy started by President George W. Bush, who famously vowed to "go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people."
"They are using these resources as a way to run a very tight, organized, specific targeted strategic communication campaign, where they can either negate or move around completely in an unfiltered way, the White House press corps and the independent media in this country," LaMarre said.
Obama has amassed 17.4 million followers on Twitter and 19.3 fans on Facebook. The White House averages 250,000 visits to its YouTube channel per month and its website received roughly 1.1 million unique visitors in January, according to ComScore.
Several likely Republican 2012 presidential contenders have also asserted themselves on social media in recent weeks, highlighting the significance of the non-traditional platforms for the coming campaign.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced the formation of his 2012 exploratory committee on Twitter and YouTube earlier this month. And former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty signaled he was moving closer to a run with a video announcement posted on Facebook.
During the 2010 midterm elections, congressional Republicans aggressively utilized Facebook and Twitter to engage constituents, and some have credited the outreach with helping the party win back the House.
"House Republicans demonstrate an unmatched ability to connect with the American people in the Internet's most popular communities," House Minority Leader John Boehner boasted in a news release in January.
Congressional Republicans have more members registered on Twitter and have more Twitter followers than their Democratic counterparts, according to the site TweetCongress.org, which tracks the data. Republicans are also the more active Tweeters, with Senate Republicans' Twitter handle "Senate_GOPs" averaging eight tweets per day.