Like millions of Americans who tuned in for President Obama’s sixth State of the Union address, UNL’s Ari Kohen was watching the speech on a television screen. But there was one key difference for the political science associate professor: Kohen was in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House.
Kohen was among 60 citizens and about 40 college students chosen from thousands of applicants to attend a special social-media event during the president’s address.
Kohen described the experience on his blog as “surreal” and said that the event pulled in Americans from all walks of life.
“There was also something really enjoyable about watching the State of the Union with a small, intensely focused crowd, all of whom seemed to have some connection in either their work or home lives with some major issue mentioned in the speech,” Kohen wrote.
Since the event was focused on social media, Kohen tweeted throughout the address; his fellow attendees were doing the same.
“People were focused on the speech and on getting their thoughts down on their phones or computers,” he said in an email interview. “But there were also times when some of the people in attendance cheered, clapped or laughed.”
Following the State of the Union address, the group was engaged in a discussion about various policy matters with two members of the President’s team: Dan Pfeiffer, senior advisor, and Tom Perez, the U.S. secretary of labor.
“The panel discussions afterward were quite interesting, as the crowd brought up issues that either weren’t addressed directly or weren’t fully explored in the speech,” Kohen said. “There were questions about violence against women, whether or not the administration still wants to work on gun control, whether or not the administration might end up supportive of the Keystone XL pipeline as part of a broader deal on infrastructure, and, of course, the way the administration makes use of social media to get and keep attention on issues.
“It was, I thought, quite impressive that Dan Pfeiffer, senior advisor to the president, spent the evening with us and also that the secretary of labor talked with us for nearly 40 minutes.”
Kohen said the event was energizing – and said events like this should continue because they build rapport between constituents and the government.
“Let’s face it, it’s a lot more difficult to be cynical about government when you’re actually invited to the White House,” Kohen blogged. “I hope the next administration decides to continue events like this one.
“It’s an incredible way to energize a group of citizens, to connect them with one another, and to reinforce the whole ‘We the People’ idea at the heart of American politics.”
Kohen plans to incorporate aspects of the experience and what he learned in his UNL classes.
“I’m teaching a class this semester on modern political theory and, in particular, on the concept of political liberalism,” he said. “It will be interesting to use this opportunity to talk with students about representative government, about divided government, about the distinctive American political experiment and about the role of an educated and engaged citizenry in political life.”