Why hasn't the Obama administration lived up to its webby promises?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 21 2010 3:02 PM

Fail to the Chief

Why hasn't the Obama administration lived up to its webby promises?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

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."

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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.

For much of the year, OFA focused directly on Obama's health care goal. As Ari Melber documents in an authoritative report on the group's first year, OFA collected thousands of stories about people's health care woes, organized meetings around the country in support of reform, and spurred a huge letter-writing campaign to push members of Congress to support Obama's efforts. But these plans didn't really work. The media paid much more attention to the noisier anti-health-care activists, and congressional staffers told Melber that the campaign by OFA wasn't a major force in lawmakers' decisions on health care.

Why did OFA fail? Because it didn't really change the way politics worked. Melber notes that the group didn't offer members any formal way to take part in decision-making or to affect what the Democratic Party did. "The tea-party movement created an opportunity for local people to really own the issue," Rosenblatt says. "Organizing for America may have turned out at least as many people to the town hall meetings, but they didn't have the passion—they were there because OFA had told them, 'We need you to do this,' not because they felt like they were an active community."

Governing is boring. To be sure, the Obama White House has done some new things with the Web. The White House Web site features a blog, Obama's weekly addresses are now hosted on YouTube, and you can see lots of pictures of the first family on the White House's Flickr page. The administration has also launched several federal sites that each offer vague, overlapping promises of transparency—Data.gov, Serve.gov, Recovery.gov, FinancialStability.gov—and has outlined a plan for government agencies to release "high value data sets" that could lead to lots of wonderfully webby government applications. Fans of federal transparency have hailed Obama's efforts, though that's exactly the problem: There aren't that many fans of federal transparency.

This highlights the larger difficulty Obama faces in trying to replicate his campaign's field organization. During the campaign, millions of people were motivated to work for Obama because the prospect of his election was thrilling, historic, and easy to understand. The idea of passing any specific piece of legislation—even something as grand as universal health care—is by comparison far less spectacular, especially as the proposals get dragged through the congressional sausage mill.

Actually, Obama's campaign was never really so webby to begin with. In December, Micah Sifry, co-founder of the annual tech/politics conference the Personal Democracy Forum, published an article in which he argued that much of the hype surrounding the Obama campaign's Web savvy was just that—hype. Sifry says that contrary to conventional wisdom, much of the candidate's money came from big donors, and his organization didn't offer volunteers new opportunities to plan what the campaign did. The Web was just one of several convenient explanations for Obama's string of unexpected political successes—a myth that raised unrealistic expectations for how the candidate would govern once he took office.

While these expectations may have helped Obama win office, they may also be his undoing, Sifry argues. As Obama settled in and began acting more and more like a regular politician, his fans became jaded. His YouTube viewership is declining, and e-mail blasts from the president and his staff no longer elicit much action.

Trippi believes that the White House can change this. There's still enough goodwill between Obama and his supporters, Trippi argues, that if the president were to try to reinvigorate efforts to create a real social network of activists, people might respond. And if they don't? There's always Campaign 2012.

Become a fan of Farhad Manjoo on Facebook.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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