President Obama Gets the Facebook Pokey Pokey

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REUTERS/Jim Young

“Even though it’s Facebook, no poking the President,” warned Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook just moments before President Obama made his live, streaming social network debut at the company’s Palo Alto headquarters. In Facebook parlance, a “poke” is a good thing– a flirt, a show of support, a friendly nudge. For the next hour, just about everyone present disobeyed Sandberg’s instructions.

But then, she couldn’t have been serious. For most of the folks who work at Facebook, Obama is the Pillsbury Doughboy, basically irresistible. Sandberg, for instance, is a proud captain of the Democratic Party’s west coast wing. A former adviser to Larry Summers in the Clinton Administration, Sandberg maxed out her personal contributions to President Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 cycle. Then for good measure she gave $28,500 to the Democratic National Committee to help Obama in the general election.

Facebook’s CEO, wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg also could not hide his excitement to have Obama at the headquarters: He wore a coat and tie, he said, only for the second time. The first time, apparently, was also in the presence of Obama, who boasted of this fact, as if he were a prefect in Zuckerberg’s dorm, responsible for first showing the boy how to tap a keg.

“I hate to tell stories on Mark, but the first time we had dinner together and he wore this jacket and tie, I’d say halfway through dinner he’s starting to sweat a little bit,” Obama told the world. “It’s really uncomfortable for him.  So I helped him out of his jacket. And in fact, if you’d like, Mark, we can take our jackets off.” Zuckerberg, who had looked as if he were about to faint, even with his top button undone, jumped at the chance. Then he blurted out, “You’re a lot better at this stuff than me.” This counts as a poke. Later when Obama suggested that the rich should pay more taxes than they currently do, Zuckerberg added eagerly, “I’m cool with that.” Also a poke.

As a rule, the questions that Obama faced at the Facebook town hall Wednesday had the size, shape and speed of wiffle balls sitting static on a tee. Zuckerberg praised Obama’s education efforts as “one of the most under-appreciated things” he had done–poke!–even as he asked the President to talk about how he would improve education. Other interrogators, who had apparently been preselected, asked Obama to talk a bit about how he would cut the budget to deal with the national debt, whether he still wanted to pass the DREAM Act (um, yeah), and why all the federal spending in the first two years of his administration had been so good for jobs.

Obama, apparently feeling the pokey poke love, was eager to poke back, making fun at the crowd of under-dressed, baby-faced, soon-be-millionaire hipsters who make up the Silicon Valley elite. “Now, a lot of you were–I’m trying to say this delicately–still in diapers at that time,” Obama said at one point, after making a point about tax rates in the 1990s. Everyone laughed.

The vibe was so pokey, in fact, that the president made a bit of news. Obama was asked if he agreed with the media characterization of the Paul Ryan, Republican budget plan as “bold and brave.” (This question came in particularly low and slow, hovering over the middle of the plate, and Obama swung hard.) “I think it’s fair to say that their vision is radical,” he said. “No, I don’t think it’s particularly courageous.  Because the last point I’ll make is this.  Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor or people who are powerless or don’t have lobbyists or don’t have clout.  I don’t think that’s particularly courageous.”

The shame of the whole event was that it had been billed as path-breaking social networking town hall for the entire Facebook community. But the voices that were heard represented only a small sliver of the 150,000,000 Americans who have Facebook accounts. Gallup polls show that 49% of Americans disapprove of the job Obama is doing, suggesting they would like to poke him in a less Facebook way. But those voices weren’t heard. Instead, Zuckerberg apologized to Obama at one point for cutting his applause short. “That was a very thorough answer,” Zuckerberg added for good measure.

It was just another gathering among pals who friended each other long ago, the 2010 TIME Person of the Year playing pokey poke with the 2008 TIME Person of the Year.

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