Shortly after Barack Obama won the White House, I called up Joe Trippi, Howard Dean's Web-savvy onetime campaign manager, to talk about why he thought Obama would be a "different kind" of president. Back then—long before AIG bonuses, "death panels," the underpants bomber, and Martha Coakley—many supporters argued that Obama's brilliant, tech-savvy campaign suggested a new model for governing. The president-elect and many on his staff promised that when they took office, the Web would be at the center of their efforts to reach out to the public. Among several initiatives, the candidate vowed to post pending legislation online for comments.
Trippi predicted that Obama could use the Web to rise above the daily news cycle and marshal millions of supporters to his policy goals. This echoed the central dogma of the Obama campaign. The candidate had beaten the establishment by inspiring a network of millions who'd never been politically active before. Now he'd do the same thing to beat Washington lobbyists and recalcitrant lawmakers. "I think it's going to be one of the most powerful presidencies we've seen since FDR, and maybe even more powerful," Trippi said. "Even the best presidents have never had a way to connect directly with millions of Americans—Obama will have that."
A year after the inauguration, things obviously aren't working out the way Obama's techie fans predicted. The energy that the Obama campaign cultivated online has fizzled, and no Obama social network has materialized to buffet the president's policies in troubled times. Indeed, it seems like just the opposite occurred. In 2009 it was Obama's critics who, aided by a few lobbyists, used the Web to plan anti-health-care reform rallies at town hall meetings around the country. And the White House hasn't even kept its promise to post legislation online for comment.
So what went wrong—why hasn't the president managed to transform My.BarackObama.com into a tool for pushing his agenda? Among tech and politics experts, there are lots of different theories about Obama's online failure. These explanations aren't mutually exclusive—several or all could be true.
The government's tech stinks. The Obama campaign was a nimble operation manned by some of the brightest stars in tech—one of Facebook's co-founders, Chris Hughes,
quit the company to work with Obama, for instance. When these gadget-loving politicos got into the White House, though, it was like stepping back in time. "The computers were so old they couldn't actually run social-media Web sites" like Facebook, says Alan Rosenblatt, the associate director of online advocacy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Even when the staff got better tech, federal computing policies restricted access to many sites; Rosenblatt says that some staffers had to bring in their own laptops with wireless modems in order to get on the Web.
Some of these difficulties have since been ironed out, and the White House managed to work out special terms of service with some social-networking sites in order to post content online. But Rosenblatt says that there are still staffers who need to bring in their own machines to get anything done.
The new operation is too top-down. Trippi argues that the Obama team made its first mistake early: They abandoned any clear effort to get the American people lobbying on their behalf and instead decided to push their agenda through inside channels by hiring head-bashers like Rahm Emanuel to work Congress directly. "They made a decision not to do it a new way," Trippi says.
After the inauguration, Obama for America, the campaign's much-celebrated Web-driven field operation, was rechristened Organizing for America and absorbed into the Democratic National Committee. OFA, as it's known, maintains many of the Obama campaign's main assets—a database of 13 million e-mail addresses, an active community blog, and a network of volunteers who'd worked for Obama during the campaign.