Barack Obama ran the most technologically sophisticated presidential campaign in history. In addition to siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from his online fans, Obama’s team recognized the Internet’s capacity to attract and organize volunteers across the country. His bloggy, YouTube-addled supporters helped shape the larger media narrative surrounding his bid; they overwhelmed social news sites like Digg and Reddit, trumpeting McCain or Clinton missteps into blogospherewide news. Most important, Obama relied on the Web’s social-networking capabilities to channel boundless enthusiasm into effective campaign activity. His site encouraged supporters to connect with one another to launch their own voter-registration drives, phone banks, and door-to-door canvassing operations—efforts that proved pivotal to Obama’s victory in the primaries and in last week’s general election.
But the campaign’s over. What will become of this new Web network now that candidate Obama has become President Obama?
Though no one in the Obama camp will discuss the specifics, Democratic Web guru Joe Trippi and others believe that the White House Web site will transform into a social network—a kind of Facebook for citizens, a place where people can learn about and work toward passing the president’s agenda. Trippi argues that if Obama can use the Web to spark the same well-organized fervor for his policy goals as he did for his campaign, “I think it’s going to be one of the most powerful presidencies we’ve seen since FDR, and maybe even more powerful. Even the best presidents have never had a way to connect directly with millions of Americans—Obama will have that.”
That, anyway, is the dream. In reality, President Obama faces a bunch of challenges in transitioning his Web network from a campaign tool into a force for passing legislation. Campaign finance rules likely prohibit him from running My.BarackObama.com, his sprawling social network, out of the White House. Instead, he’ll need to build a new noncampaign site and ask the country to join it. (It’s unclear whether the site will be hosted on the main White House domain—Whitehouse.gov—or at some other dedicated address, like the transition site Change.gov.) If he does so, tens of millions of people would probably heed his call.
The key, of course, is what happens after everybody signs up—we’ve all registered for social networks before and done nothing more useful on them than SuperPoke! Obama’s challenge is to make his online presence exciting, to get users as fired up to pass his tax or health care policies as they were about getting him to the White House. This will be difficult; online communities are fragile, tenuous associations, and Obama’s Web coalition—millions of people with various competing interests—could very well splinter when tasked with working toward specific policy goals. It’s easy to make a viral video in support of a vague, unobjectionable notion like “change.” Will.i.am and Scarlett Johansson might have a tougher time coming up with a catchy ditty in support of expanding the mortgage interest tax credit.
During the campaign, Obama often discussed his plans to use the Web to reconnect Americans to their government. For instance, he wants to let people post comments on pending legislation. He’ll also put up detailed information about what the White House is doing each day, as well as specific ways for Americans to get involved: Call this congressman, help get the bill through that committee, fight this lobbying group. Thomas Gensemer, a managing partner at Blue State Digital—the political consulting firm that helped build Obama’s online campaign operations and Change.gov—points out that these initiatives go far beyond what you can do on President Bush’s Web site. In addition to some fascinating virtual tours, today’s Whitehouse.gov offers the opportunity to sign up for a weekly e-mail newsletter about the administration’s activities—and that’s about the only interaction you get with the president.
A more engaging site, Gensemer says, will help Obama cultivate groups of “superactivists”—the tens of thousands of especially motivated people who, during the campaign, took time off from work and relocated to other states in order to volunteer full-time. Let’s imagine that Obama’s ambitious health care plan runs into trouble in Congress. The social network might help him identify the few hundred or few thousand health care activists in key congressional districts who agree with his proposals. In the same way that Facebook lets you plan a lavish birthday dinner for yourself, the White House Web site would let activists hold gatherings to lobby their legislators on Obama’s behalf. “If a congressman goes home and sees a town hall meeting with 1,000 people in their district, that matters,” Gensemer says.
Is this a realistic scenario? “Congress is the great shock absorber of American politics. Movements go there to die,” says Micah Sifry, co-founder of an annual technology and politics conference called the Personal Democracy Forum. Organized interests—the health care industry, say—wield influence in this environment because they’ve got the money and the patience to be there every day and keep pressing their agenda. At its best, says Sifry, the social network will help Obama develop a counterweight to those groups. “The White House has always had the bully pulpit to go over the heads of Congress through the mass media,” he says. “What Obama now has is the ability to go between the legs of members of Congress.”
But that presumes that all of Obama’s social-networking friends will support his agenda—and what if that’s not the case? What happens when conservatives flock to the White House Web site to post nasty comments opposing Obama’s stem-cell policy or if Sean Hannity urges his audience to use the site’s tools to plan gatherings protesting Obama’s tax plan? Even Obama’s supporters are likely to disagree with him from time to time; already, there are online petitions and Facebook groups calling on him to skip over Larry Summers and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for Cabinet positions. The opposition might be especially hairy during periods of national emergency—if Obama decides to launch military action, would the White House Web site fill up with comments showing that the country is not fully behind him?
During the campaign, we saw one vivid example of how Obama might handle online protests of his policies—he’ll let them go on. In June, the senator announced that he had switched positions on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He decided to vote for an updated version of the bill even though it offered immunity to telecom companies that had worked with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, a measure that many of his supporters vehemently opposed.
Protestors immediately took to the campaign’s site; a group urging Obama to reject the bill swelled to more than 20,000 members, making it by far the site’s largest. Obama didn’t change his mind on the eavesdropping bill. But neither did the campaign take any steps to shut down the anti-FISA group, and shortly before voting for the bill, Obama posted a lengthy note to the group explaining why he’d voted for the bill, and his policy staff answered hundreds of comments from the group explaining the nuances of the senator’s position.
Alan Rosenblatt, the associate director of online advocacy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, says that if Obama does the same thing while in office, he might be able to blunt some of the inevitable criticism of his proposals. “If there’s a level of back-and-forth, it creates a sense of democracy,” Rosenblatt says—and that sense of democracy ends up serving the candidate well. The FISA protest took place during a key moment in the Obama campaign—just after he’d locked up the nomination, at a time when many volunteers were deciding how much work to do for the campaign. I called up Chrisi West, a 29-year-old Obama supporter who opposed his position on FISA but who, nevertheless, went on to become one of the campaign’s most active supporters in her home state of Virginia. West told me that Obama’s response on the eavesdropping bill helped convince her that the online community wasn’t incidental to Obama—that he actually respected what people thought of his positions. That kind of openness only pushed people to work harder, West said, and when he takes office, “we’ll all be ready to jump in when we’re needed.”
It remains to be seen, though, whether more casual online supporters will take up arms for Obama when he takes office. The sort of Web site the Obama team seems to be envisioning—one in which the president and his citizens hold deep discussions about the controversial issues of the day—will surely be much less focused than My.BarackObama.com, which had a singular goal: to get Barack Obama elected. Obama’s campaign Web site connected disparate people who shared a common passion; the White House social network will connect people who disagree with each other and with the president—and whose goals might be in conflict. So far, the Web hasn’t had a great record of bridging social divisions. If Obama can change that, maybe he really is a different kind of politician.