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When I logged on to the White House Web site about an hour before the inauguration, George W. Bush was already gone. He’d been replaced by an error message that popped up while, I imagine, the Young Turks on Obama’s Web team flipped over the site. I kept hitting refresh, and just after noon, before the new president even took the oath, Barack Obama popped up online. The new White House Web site leads with a smiling photo and the headline, “Change Has Come to America.” Click the photo and you’re taken to the site’s leading element—the White House Blog.
I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Obama, who gained so much from online social networks during the campaign, is greeting the Internet with a blog post. Still, it’s a dramatic transition from the last White House site—indeed, from every White House site ever, not to mention most government sites—which took a formal, we’ll-tell-you-what’s-going-on tone on its front page. At its close, the Bush site was mainly a mess of links to press releases, speeches, and propaganda documents. (One of its leading sections was titled “Setting the Record Straight.”)
The Obama site is leaner—understandably, the administration being just a few hours old—but also promises more interactivity. In the first blog post, Macon Phillips, Obama’s White House director of new media, reaffirms a campaign promise—that the White House will post all nonemergency legislation to the site for five days and review all the comments that come in before the president signs or vetoes the bill. Wisely, the first blog post allows no comments—if it had, we’d have seen a mob of wiseasses posting “First!!!!” At the moment, the only way to send a note to the White House is to use this contact form.
After the election, many wondered how Obama would transform his campaign’s online network into a force for pushing his policy goals. As far as I can tell, the White House Web site is not—or not yet—a social network. You can’t build a profile, connect with friends, and start groups to advocate for certain positions—the functions that allowed millions of supporters to take part in his campaign. What you can do is give the site your e-mail address and ZIP code. When I did so, I got a pop-up message thanking me for my submission, and that was that. I hope they don’t spam me.
The site is not without its bugs, either: A flashy slide show of past presidents fails to include anyone past Gerald Ford. In addition, the Web masters were so thorough in their attempts to erase the old site that they broke many legitimate pages. For instance, when you Google George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, or any other past president, you get now-broken links to their bios on the White House site.
On television this morning, many of the anchors were reveling in the majesty of America’s “peaceful handover of power.” The handover online, though, is far less civil and carries no pomp. It’s violently abrupt: All of a sudden, there’s a new president—and the old one vanishes.
To test out the new site’s search engine, I typed in “Bush.” I got back just four pages dedicated to the clan—one bio each for Barbara Bush, George H.W. Bush, Laura Bush, and George W. Bush. That last page recounts the 43rd president’s achievements in just a few short paragraphs—it says nothing about Iraq, Katrina, Gitmo, Scooter Libby, Alberto Gonzales, or anything else you might’ve lost sleep over these past eight years. It’s almost like none of it ever happened.