WASHINGTON, D.C. — When President Obama takes the stage on Thursday for an MTV youth town-hall special called "A Conversation With President Obama," one of the people he will have to thank for getting him up to speed on the issues affecting today's youth is Heather Higginbottom.
"Right now, the stage is being set for a presidential town-hall meeting ... where the president is going to talk to young people about their interests and their concerns, hear about their issues, answer their questions and engage in a dialogue about the future of the country," said Higginbottom, 36, who began her political career as an intern while she was a junior in college before parlaying that into a gig as the deputy national policy director for Senator John Kerry's 2004 presidential run and then into her current gig as Obama's deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council.
As a team of set dressers worked furiously behind her to get the set ready for the show at the BET studios, hammering away at the risers, focusing and hanging lights and assembling a giant map of the U.S., Higginbottom told MTV News what it feels like to be the president's point person on all things domestic.
Thanks to a steady stream of town-hall meetings and backyard forums with voters, Higginbottom said the president is prepared to take questions from the 200-plus college kids in the audience Thursday. "He's relatively up to speed on what people are thinking about, what questions are on their mind," she said. "What he might do especially for this is sit down with some of his advisers, maybe get a little pop-culture briefing, make sure that he is really thinking of the questions that might be on people's mind and be ready to answer them tomorrow night."
MTV has been talking to university students in the Washington area all week, and they told us what they would ask the president, just as other young voters will do during "A Conversation With President Obama," Thursday's one-hour town-hall event airing live and commercial-free on MTV, mtvU, BET, Centric, TR3s and CMT at 4 p.m. ET/PT and stream live on MTV.com, BET.com and CMT.com.
As Obama's right-hand woman on issues including health care, immigration, crime, gay and lesbian issues, poverty and, her lifelong passion, education reform, Higginbottom said her job is to take the president's vision and work with other agencies to make those ideas happen and brief him on current events.
Asked how the president specifically focuses his thoughts for an event like the MTV forum, which is just the latest in a long history of the channel's engagement with major American political figures, Higginbottom said the president's ability to engage crucial young voters is almost second nature.
"He places a huge premium on engaging young people," she said. "You saw that in the campaign in 2008. It's one of the reasons he ran, to engage and lead the country in a new direction. It's important to him to have a discussion, a dialogue, to do the outreach. ... Young people get their information and their news in lots of different ways, so this opportunity is a way for him to engage directly with young people on the issues that they care about."
It helps that the president is surrounded by a legendarily sleep-deprived roster of young staffers who make sure he's up-top-date on issues, as well as two young daughters who keep him on his toes. But Higginbottom said one of the ways Obama stays connected to average Americans is by reading 10 letters from voters every day.
"They often include letters from young people about their concerns," she said of his little-publicized ritual. "Whether it's going to fight in a war, the direction of the economy, the ability to pay for higher education." As an example of how he's listened to some of the comments he's read in those letters, she cited such wins for young people as a provision in the health care law that allows people up to age 26 to stay on their parents' insurance and big steps in reducing the costs of college.
With a crucial midterm election coming up in three weeks that could result in a changing of the guard in Congress, Higginbottom said she hopes viewers of the forum come away with at least one clear message. "What I hope it is ... for young people to be involved in their government, in their democracy, to care about the issues, to vote, to participate and to help affect the direction the country will go in."
If the economy and job creation are your top concerns, you can ask the president about his plans to remedy the situation. He will be taking questions from Twitter, as well as the live audience, during Thursday's conversation. From now through the live show, tweet your questions with the hashtag #askjobs or #askeconomy (or another topic that's important to you). Starting on Wednesday (October 13), you can also visit the Twitter Tracker to submit your question and see which #ask topics are trending with other users.
What do you want to ask President Obama? Share your questions in the comments before asking the president himself on Thursday!
"A Conversation With President Obama," a production of MTV News and BET News, will be hosted by MTV News' Sway Calloway, BET's April Woodard and CMT's Katie Cook. The show will air live at 4 p.m. ET/ 3 p.m. CT (and tape-delayed at 4 p.m. PT) on MTV, BET, CMT, mtvU, Centric and Tr3s. The show will also stream on MTV.com, BET.com, CMT.com and Tr3s.com and will be made available on-demand 30 days after its initial airing.