The brave and brutish new world

 

 

I'm cross-posting my latest Sunday print column, and restoring some passages that I had to leave on the cutting room floor:

The political community is abuzz these days about the imminent launch of Barack Obama 2.0, a cutting-edge plan for effective governance in the Internet era. The heady expectation is that the new president will usher in a brave new world of communication, using the power of the web to conduct an unprecedented two-way conversation with citizens, all in the interests of providing the change they seek.

We’re already getting an early taste. Obama delivered his first YouTube address the other day – sort of like a fireside chat, minus the crackling logs – and members of his transition team are talking about their work in videos posted on change.gov, the official website of the president-in-waiting. Obama’s boosters argue that it all makes perfect sense; given the fact that the candidate broke new ground by successfully harnessing the Internet, who’s to say that he can’t similarly revolutionize the art of governing?

But I don’t believe it will be that simple, given the brutish realities of the web.

I will acknowledge, certainly, that many of our most successful presidents have been those who tapped the new technologies of their eras. Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln benefited from breakthrough advances in mass-circulation newspapers (those were the days!). Franklin D. Roosevelt soothed an anxious nation via radio. John F. Kennedy’s cool dispassion was perfect for television; he was the first to conduct live press conferences. The bottom line is, no president can succeed without first mastering the available tools of persuasion.

Obama’s ambition, a laudable one, is to maximize his political capital by communicating online with the 10 million supporters on his e-list – and, hopefully,  doing broadband outreach to millions more. The goal is to engage the citizenry in the unsexy process of governing, to build and sustain support for his policy initiatives, to put pressure on recalcitrant congressman by rallying the grassroots. Regarding the latter, political consultant Joe Trippi recently predicted that the Internet “will be a power that no American president has had before. Congress’ power will be taken over by the American people.”

And in the interests of two-way “transparency,” the Obama team will invite citizens to bang out governing advice on their keyboards and click Send. As online commentator Omar Wasow recently enthused, during a Washington Post web chat, “Used effectively, the Net can be a very powerful way to allow the audience to have a voice, to coordinate activities, to link like-minded folks with each other…I think the Obama campaign succeeded online because they allowed the audience to be active participants.” 

It all sounds cool. Nevertheless, all this talk about a transformative “Internet presidency” seems a tad pie-eyed.

I’m skeptical in part because of an episode that occurred last summer, when we learned that Obama’s campaign website had been scrubbed of all skeptical references to the troop surge in Iraq. One day, the surge was listed under a heading called “The Problem”; the next day, the surge was simply gone from the list, without explanation. An Obama spokeswoman, quizzed later, said that the erasure was merely an attempt to “update” the site. But there’s something a bit Orwellian about flushing something down the memory hole with a click of a mouse. It got me thinking about how the Internet, while clearly a transformative communication tool, can also be easily manipulated by those in power, in ways that violate the spirit of transparency.

And with respect to the Internet’s potential as a presidential platform, it’s important to remember that governing is complicated and incremental, replete with setbacks and murky compromise; the process lacks the fervor and pizzazz of electioneering. I would be shocked to see Obama Girl shaking her booty on YouTube for an economic stimulus package, or will.i.am doing an online chant of “yes we can” for a Senate bill mandating the creation of a Federal Health Board.

It’s also worth remembering that the new medium will be only as good as the message it confers. Obama’s first post-election YouTube address, delivered on Nov. 15, seems like a boffo performance not just because of its novelty, but because he has yet to be nicked by the tough choices of governing; he had free reign to exude boldness, as when he promised to make an economic rescue plan “my first order of business as president.”

It’s also worth nothing when the Obama web team posted his first address on the transition website, it did not provide a space for the public to post comments. If his people are so wary about two-way transparency at this early juncture, imagine how they will be when the road gets rocky.

Imagine, for instance, how Obama’s huge web constituency would react, perhaps next year, if he goes online to explain how “we’re not going to have enough money for a lot of things.” (That’s a quote from an unnamed Obama advisor, leaking the other day to The New York Times.) Or if he tries to explain to the liberal web denizens why he is practicing the art of the possible by compromising with the Republicans on energy or health care or the pullback from Iraq.

The “transparency” credo is surely laudable, at least in theory. Millions of cynical Americans have long felt deprived of a voice in their government – and here comes this guy who vows to open the doors. As a senator, Obama’s sponsored a bill (it’s now a law) that he calls “Google for government,” because it allows anyone to type a few key words and find out where their tax dollars are going. Obama has even talked about allowing C-Span to film his health-care deliberations (although I’ll believe that one when I see it). Clearly, his instinct is to lower the barriers between president and populace.

But as for this idea of engaging in a two-way online conversation, with feedback from citizen participants…well, we shall see about that one. Speaking from first-hand experience, I can stipulate that the online world is particularly unruly, a virtual Wild West where the perpetually aggrieved shoot first and think later, if at all.

So imagine how the most idealistic liberal denizens of that world will react when their sky-high expectations of Obama inevitably collide with the cold hard truths of Washington governance, especially in these tough economic times. They could wind up using the web to make Obama’s life miserable. And I haven’t even mentioned the Republicans, who, once they cease their infighting, will surely seek to mimic Obama by building an online network of their own.

The point is, Obama may well discover that the power of the web can’t be harnessed from Washington, not even by a majority president riding a wave of good will.

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Meanwhile, The New York Times ran a news story yesterday on the same topic.

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