Obama harnessed the grass-roots power of the Web to get elected. How will he use that power now?
Published Nov 22, 2008
From the magazine issue dated Dec 1, 2008
Major politician who really “gets” the Internet. Sure, Howard Dean used the Web to raise money. But Obama used it to build an army. And now, that army of digital kids expects to stick around and help him govern. Crowd-sourced online brainstorming sessions? Web sites where regular folks hash out policy ideas and vote yea or nay online? A new government computer infrastructure that lets people get a look into the workings of Washington, including where the money flows and how decisions get made? Yes to all those and more. “This was not just an election—this was a social movement,” says Don Tapscott, author of “Grown Up Digital,” which chronicles the lives of 20-somethings raised on computers and the Web. “I’m convinced,” Tapscott says, “that we’re in the early days of fundamental change in the nature of democracy itself.”
Call it Government 2.0. Instead of a one-way system in which government hands down laws and provides services to citizens, why not use the Internet to let citizens, corporations and civil organizations work together with elected officials to develop solutions? That kind of open-source collaboration is second nature to the Net-gen kids who supported Obama and to technologists from Silicon Valley who are advising him. “An open system means more voices; more voices mean more discussion, which leads to a better decision,” Google CEO and Obama adviser Eric Schmidt told a roomful of policy thinkers in Washington last week, gathered for a discussion on the role technology will play in government. “A community will always make a better decision than an individual.”
Obama’s transition team is already building an organization to carry on the Internet efforts begun during the campaign. On the stump, Obama laid out plans for a technology czar in his administration—a senior-level, or even cabinet-level, post that he promised would make his White House transparent and ultra-efficient. Obama has talked about streaming portions of cabinet meetings live on the Internet in order to reach more people, and not long after his election he gave one of his first “radio” addresses in video form on YouTube. He’s also asked that candidates for jobs in his administration submit their information online, so more than just Washington insiders would be considered.
“New media will be at the center of the action, helping the entire executive branch run faster,” says Thomas Gensemer, managing partner of Blue State Digital, the Washington, D.C., tech strategy firm that built the Obama campaign’s social networking site, my.BarackObama.com. Gensemer expects the fired-up Obama army to stay committed to the cause. “If anything, with Obama now in office, they’ll want to participate more, not less, and take part in the governing process,” he says. (That’s not the case for some of the young turks who helped Obama build his Web campaign. Joe Rospars, who ran Obama’s Internet team, is returning to Blue State Digital, which he cofounded in 2004. Other top staff expressed privately that the bigger opportunities and money will be found in dotcom, not dotgov.)
Continuing the Internet efforts of the campaign raises some tricky legal questions. One challenge is figuring out how to keep using the personal data gathered from more than 10 million supporters during the campaign. Federal election rules prohibit President Obama from interacting with supporters in the same way as Candidate Obama did. When he becomes everybody’s president, the law says he can’t communicate only with the people who voted for him. Like his recent predecessors, he’ll have to use the WhiteHouse.gov Web site to make sure everyone’s included. Transition officials are looking for ways to sidestep the rules. One maneuver they’re considering involves setting up a nonprofit organization that would purchase the Obama supporter lists (names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses) from the campaign, says Steve Hildebrand, former deputy manager of the campaign. The nonprofit would serve as a conduit, letting the administration maintain indirect contact with supporters. The nonprofit, likely to be set up as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, could encourage supporters to push legislators on policy issues by, say, flooding a Senate office with phone calls and e-mails, or arranging demonstrations via Facebook to push for universal health care.
Federal disclosure laws could further limit Obama’s participation in all this new Internet activity. Statutes say that any official correspondence from the president becomes property of the office, not the man in it. The rules were drafted at a time when the president’s sole communication was on paper, and there wasn’t that much of it. But now, with things like e-mail and instant messaging, the most mundane messages from or to Obama would become government property, and much of it would eventually be accessible to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. For this reason, Obama earlier this month started to wean himself from his BlackBerry. If he wanted to, he could choose to keep it. But if he did, he’d have to acknowledge that a historian decades from now could study just how much time the president spent bantering with pals or gushing about the White Sox. “He’ll be restricted by how much information about him will become public property,” says Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford. “This is an area where the statutes are far out of date for the current technology.” Security officials also worry about Obama using the device for official business, fearing a hacker could gain access to internal deliberations.