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Obama makes 'friends' at Facebook HQ

President Obama likely has a few more "friends" after a town hall session at Facebook headquarters Wednesday, but the real winner may be the medium of social networking itself, which commands not just the attention of politicians but now an appearance by the president.

At the same time, the openness and accessibility praised by Obama as a key value of social media clashed with the tightly controlled nature of the event.

Questions came from pre-screened online submissions or handpicked Facebook employees, and ranged from the national debt and immigration to education and health care.

To anyone who tuned in via a live online feed, it wasn't very different from its televised counterparts. The only difference might have been the average age of the fresh-faced audience, many of whom appeared to be the same age as event moderator and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 26.

Zuckerberg offered the first question, asking the president about his plan to curb the federal deficit.

Afterward, employees were quickly shuttled out as they rebuffed reporters' attempts to interview them. Facebook is known for its rigorous effort to control its media image, and Zuckerberg seldom grants interviews.

It was a stark contrast to Obama's easygoing introduction of himself with a joke about the famously informal Zuckerberg.

"My name is Barack Obama, and I'm the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie," he said.

At the end, Zuckerberg presented Obama a hooded Facebook sweat shirt, the CEO's signature attire.

The event was held in a vast warehouse space on Facebook's Palo Alto campus, just down the road from technology industry stalwarts like Hewlett-Packard Co.

Obama was the first sitting head of state to visit Facebook's brick-and-mortar home, the latest big-name visitor to the tech-savvy region in Northern California that gave rise to social media and the personal computer. He will likely not be the last: The 2012 presidential race is expected to see unprecedented use of social media as a tool to reach voters.

The event capped an influential year of milestones for Facebook, which reached 500 million users last July and became the subject of a critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated movie. Zuckerberg famously built the Facebook site in his dorm room at Harvard just seven years ago as a service for classmates. Today the privately held company is valued in the tens of billions of dollars, maintains offices around the world and has more than 2,000 employees. Zuckerberg, now a billionaire, will be 27 in May.

During his appearance, Obama declared that congressional Republicans are pushing a radical plan to trim Medicare and Medicaid as he ramped up the rhetoric before the friendly Facebook crowd. Still, as Obama and Congress approach crucial decisions on spending and the national debt, the president said he thinks a bipartisan accord is possible.

"I think it's fair to say that their vision is radical," Obama told the town hall gathering.

"I don't think it's particularly courageous," he said of the GOP plan to convert Medicare to a voucher program and make big cuts to the federal-state Medicaid program for the poor.

"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," Obama said.

The president said he would raise $1 trillion by returning income tax rates for high earners to the levels during Bill Clinton's administration, when the economy prospered. That would force wealthy people like himself and Zuckerberg to pay "a little more in taxes," he said.

"I'm cool with that," Zuckerberg replied, as his employees laughed and applauded.

Obama's own White House Facebook page is among the most popular anywhere. About 19 million network users have electronically "liked" it.

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