How would Obama’s success in online campaigning translate into governing?

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.

Also in the June Atlantic:

The Amazing Money Machine
How Silicon Valley made Barack Obama this year's hottest start-up. By Joshua Green

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.

From Atlantic Unbound:

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.

What Obama seems to promise is, at its outer limits, a participatory democracy in which the opportunities for participation have been radically expanded. He proposes creating a public, Google-like database of every federal dollar spent. He aims to post every piece of non-emergency legislation online for five days before he signs it so that Americans can comment. A White House blog—also with comments—would be a near certainty. Overseeing this new apparatus would be a chief technology officer.

There is some precedent for Obama’s vision. The British government has already used the Web to try to increase interaction with its citizenry, to limited effect. In November 2006, it established a Web site for citizens seeking redress from their government, http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/. More than 29,000 petitions have since been submitted, and about 9.5 percent of Britons have signed at least one of them. The petitions range from the class-conscious (“Order a independent report to identify reasons that the living conditions of working class people are poor in relation to higher classes”) to the parochial (“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to re-open sunderland ice rink”).

What does the government do with the petitions? It says it reads them and directs them, at its discretion, to the appropriate department; sometimes the department responds. Advocates of the system note that it enables the government to monitor public wants and attitudes in a way that opinion polling doesn’t.

Those in Obama’s campaign who think about technology and government see the U.K. site as merely a baby step—the first of many ways that Americans might interact with a President Obama. But the British example also helps show the limits of online participatory government. Communication and transparency are virtues only up to a point; as students of bureaucracies know, both eventually become an enemy to efficiency. Moreover, if an Obama presidency invited more input than it could reasonably weigh and respond to, it would quickly squander the networking capital that the campaign has built.

Today Obama is like a brand, his campaign like a $250 million company, and the voters like customers; the persuasion flows one way. If he becomes president, then power, authority, and legitimacy will flow in both directions; voters who are now keen to support the idea of Obama may push against his initiatives in office, sometimes unpredictably.

Indeed, in recent years the Web has without question generated and focused enough public pressure to force the hands of politicians on several occasions. So far, though, this pressure has been created spontaneously—and it has worked to the distinct disadvantage of the executive branch.

When President Bush nominated his longtime friend Harriet Miers to be a Supreme Court justice, wired conservative activists revolted. Minutes after the news broke, a blogger searched the federal campaign database and found that Miers had contributed to Democrats in the past, provoking a wave of questions about her ideological bona fides. In the space of a few hours, conservative outrage coalesced, and activists succeeded in throwing an unprepared White House and Republican National Committee off message; talk radio, the ether of the conservative movement, was filled with confusion, sown by angry e-mails and phone calls. I remember a senior GOP official asking me that night, “What the hell just happened?” It would take the RNC many hours to figure out that bloggers were generating the heat, and that bloggers had to be tended to first if the fire was to be put out.

More recently, the “netroots”—liberal Democrats organized online—have kept pressure on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to avoid compromise with Republicans on national-security legislation the president calls critical. They’ve organized online petitions and sent e-mails to key staff members; they’ve raised money to air issue-advocacy ads. The Daily Kos Web site regularly asks its millions of readers to evaluate the performance of their congressional leaders, and, just as regularly, members of those leaders’ staffs check to see whether their bosses have had a good or a bad month. Top Democrats are relying more and more on netroots money to fund their political action committees, so these evaluations matter.

The lesson here seems obvious enough: technology has concentrated a fair amount of political power in hubs outside Washington. But Washington has not harnessed that power successfully.

If Obama wins, and if he can harness the Web as a unifying force once the voting is done, he could be a powerful president indeed—the kind that might even deliver on some of the audacious promises that Obama the candidate has made. But the Web, like the politics it seeks to transform, is unruly and fickle. The online networks that have turbocharged Obama’s candidacy could end up hemming him in, and even stalling his agenda, as president.