WHITE HOUSE NOTEBOOK: Language skills on display

AP News
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Posted: Nov 16, 2009 4:02 AM

Chinese students visiting Monday with President Barack Obama during a town hall-style meeting wanted to show off their language skills. The U.S. ambassador to China did the same.

Obama's event with students here featured more spoken English than Chinese _ except for Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Obama's representative to Beijing and a former Mormon missionary to Taiwan, who introduced Obama with polished Chinese.

"I don't know what he said, but I hope it was good," Obama laughed as he took the podium for what was described as the first town hall-style meeting between Chinese students and a U.S. president.

Many of the students asked questions in English about Obama's views on Internet censorship, global leadership and Taiwan. Obama responded in English and translators made sure students understood the answers in Chinese.

To open, Obama greeted the students in their native language _ but not before a last-minute check with Huntsman.

"I'm very sorry that my Chinese is not as good as your English," Obama said. "But I am looking forward to this chance to have a dialogue.

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For as much as his administration _ and his presidential campaign before _ employed high-tech ways to communicate, Obama made a surprising confession during that town hall: He doesn't use Twitter.

"I have never used Twitter. I notice that young people, they're very busy with all these electronics. My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone," Obama joked when asked about China's Internet restrictions.

It's a curious statement from someone who negotiated with White House lawyers and the Secret Service so he could keep using his handheld BlackBerry e-mail device after winning the presidency. Officials made high-tech and high-security upgrades and Obama now keeps in touch with friends on a device dubbed the BarackBerry _ a gadget that apparently lacks the capability to tweet.

No matter: 1.5 million people follow the White House's official Twitter feed, 2.7 million people follow the Barack Obama political account

And as Obama spoke, thousands of people around the globe watched the event on the White House's Web site and on the social networking site Facebook. The White House's Twitter feed even promoted it: "Watch President Obama take questions from Chinese students and the Web."

Maybe it would've been better if Obama were in charge of the tweets. As the message went out, Obama's motorcade was winding through the empty streets of Shanghai.

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You can take the man out of Des Moines, but you can't take the Des Moines out of the man.

Obama turned to his trademark system of calling on town hall meeting participants he honed during his many visits to Iowa ahead of its first-in-the-nation nominating caucus. He alternated questions between the genders.

"What I'll do is I'll call on a boy and then a girl and then _ so we'll go back and forth, so that you know it's fair," Obama said. "All right? So I'll start with this young lady right in the front."

As he did during his marathon presidential bid, Obama alternated questions.

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General Motors may be a quintessential American company, but the car manufacturer could learn a thing or two from its counterparts in China.

During a meeting with the president, the secretary of the Shanghai's Communist Party said GM's operations in the city have seen a 40 percent boost in sales over the last year.

Obama liked what he heard.

"I think they can learn from their operations here in terms of increasing sales back in the United States," he said.

Obama has a vested interest in GM's success. After the company went bankrupt earlier this year, the U.S. government took a 61 percent ownership stake in GM and invested $52 billion of taxpayer money in the company.

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AP White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven and Associated Press Writer Mark S. Smith contributed to this report.