|Illustration by Patrick Leger|
America’s politics have regularly been transformed by sudden changes in the way we communicate. And revolutions in communications technology have always bestowed great gifts on those politicians savvy enough to grasp their full potential. It is still unclear how far Barack Obama’s talent for online campaigning will take him. But it’s worth noting that some of the best-known presidents in U.S. history have stood at the vanguard of past communications revolutions—and that a few have used those revolutions not only to mobilize voters and reach the White House but also to consolidate power and change the direction of politics once they got there.
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Improvements to the printing press helped Andrew Jackson form and organize the Democratic Party, and he courted newspaper editors and publishers, some of whom became members of his Cabinet, with a zeal then unknown among political leaders. But the postal service, which was coming into its own as he reached for the presidency, was perhaps even more important to his election and public image. Jackson’s exploits in the War of 1812 became well known thanks in large measure to the distribution network that the postal service had created, and his 1828 campaign—among the first to distribute biographical pamphlets by mail—reinforced his heroic image. As president, he turned the office of postmaster into a patronage position, expanded the postal network further—the historian Richard John has pointed out that by the middle of Jackson’s first term, there were 2,000 more postal workers in America than soldiers in the Army—and used it to keep his populist base rallied behind him.
Flashbacks: "The Great Debates"
Two early twentieth—century articles recall one of America's most momentous electoral showdowns of all time—the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Abraham Lincoln became a national celebrity, according to the historian Allen Guelzo’s new book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, when transcripts of those debates were reprinted nationwide in newspapers, which were just then reaching critical mass in distribution beyond the few Eastern cities where they had previously flourished. Newspapers enabled Lincoln, an odd-looking man with a reed-thin voice, to become a viable national candidate; it might even be argued that the idea of a “union” worth fighting for was conceivable because newspapers also enabled increasingly far-flung citizens to stay apprised of far-off events, and to envision themselves as part of a greater whole.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt used radio to make his case for a dramatic redefinition of government itself, quickly mastering the informal tone best suited to the medium. In his fireside chats, Roosevelt reached directly into American living rooms at pivotal moments of his presidency. His talks—which by turns soothed, educated, and pressed for change—held the New Deal together.
And of course John F. Kennedy famously rode into the White House thanks in part to the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history, in which his keen sense of the medium’s visual impact, plus a little makeup, enabled him to fashion the look of a winner (especially when compared with a pale and haggard Richard Nixon). Kennedy used TV primarily to create and maintain his public image, not as a governing tool, but he understood its strengths and limitations before his peers did, and his election and popularity resulted partly from that understanding.
The communications revolution under way today involves the Internet, of course, and if Barack Obama eventually wins the presidency, it will be in no small part because he has understood the medium more fully than his opponents do. His speeches play well on YouTube, which allows for more than the five-second sound bites that have characterized the television era. And he recognizes the importance of transparency and consistency at a time when access to everything a politician has ever said is at the fingertips of every voter. But as Joshua Green notes in the preceding pages, Obama has truly set himself apart by his campaign’s use of the Internet to organize support. No other candidate in this or any other election has ever built a support network like Obama’s. The campaign’s 8,000 Web-based affinity groups, 750,000 active volunteers, and 1,276,000 donors have provided him with an enormous financial and organizational advantage in the Democratic primary.
Obama clearly intends to use the Web, if he is elected president, to transform governance just as he has transformed campaigning. Notably, he has spoken of conducting “online fireside chats” as president. And when one imagines how Obama’s political army, presumably intact, might be mobilized to lobby for major legislation with just a few keystrokes, it becomes possible, for a moment at least, to imagine that he might change the political culture of Washington simply by overwhelming it.