It has been a little over a month since the White House launched an outreach program promising official responses to policy ideas submitted by everyday Americans. The result? A whole lot of arguing concering space aliens, marijuana legalization, and onetime murder suspect Casey Anthony, followed by a bunch of vague, bureaucratic answers from bedraggled staff members.
In short: it has been an entertaining project to watch! The gist of the program was announced in September, when the White House asked people to submit questions or "calls for action ... on a range of issues." The threshold for answering a demand was setup like this: "if a petition gathers enough support (i.e., signatures) it will be reviewed by a standing group of White House staff, routed to any other appropriate offices and generate an official, on-the-record response."
It was a pretty cool idea and it got off to a great start. The White House team first considered a petition that gathered some 32,000 signatures asking for the government to forgive all student loan debt. While not bowing to the petitioners' demands wholesale, the Obama team responded Oct. 26 with the announcement of a new policy to reduce student loan debt on students.
We agree that reducing the burden of student loans is an effective way to stimulate the economy and save taxpayer dollars. That's why we're excited to announce a new policy that speaks to the concerns expressed in this petition.
Only a sucker would assume the White House drafted its student debt "Pay as You Earn" proposal in response to a petition signed by 32,000 people on the Internet. But still, it created a nice call-and-response dialogue with the participants and gave a sense that the administration was taking the petitions seriously.
But then... things didn't go so well. The White House became overwhelmed with submissions. It raised the previous threshold of 5,000 signatures necessary for a response to 25,000. And then it started issuing blanket responses and no promises of any policy changes.
Marijuana fans collected enough signatures to get a response from the White House... but the answer wasn't all that satisfying, just a statement explaining that "marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms." The response also acknowledged that we can't "arrest our way out of the problem" and noted the administration's commitment to drug rehabilitation.
Then came the space-alien people, who got a petition through the process asking the White House to "immediately disclose the government's knowledge of and communications with extraterrestrial beings." The White House replied: "Searching for ET, But No Evidence Yet," and ticked off a series of NASA projects related to the discovery of intelligent life beyond the skies. Other issues that crossed the threshold garnered "no comment" responses, such as a request to "Try Casey Anthony in Federal Court for Lying to the FBI Investigators" and a request to investigate judicial misconduct the case of former Agriprocessors executive Sholom Rubashkin.
For many reasons the White House didn't offer more fully-fleshed responses. Many of the more popular petitions require acts of Congress and constitutional amendments outside of the control of the president. Others involved hot-button issues that an administration heading into campaign season would be crazy to take on.
But the angry petitioners, whose passions had been stoked by the well-meaning initiative, started airing their grievances against the White House once it dawned on them that the whole thing wasn't much more than a public-relations ploy. "Actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening," reads a petition that has generated almost 15,000 signatures. Another one dripping with sarcasm reads: "We demand a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition," which generated 9,000 signatures.
Nobody was happy. The marijuana people offered this reaction . The space-alien geeks said the whole thing was "unacceptable." In The Washington Post, Esther Cepeda wrote that the program was all sleight-of-hand. "By bringing the absurdity of reality-TV voting gimmicks into government policy decisions, but not really following through in the way people hoped, Obama has succeeded in further turning off supporters who believed he'd be a good listener — and vindicated cynics who never believe politicians will keep their word."
This We the People experiment has proven a little tricky. Is the White House ready to give up? Not yet. Last week, the administration acknowledged the backlash but reasserted its commitment. "There has been some frustration with the answers from those who disagree with Administration policy, and that's fair," White House digital strategy director Macon Phillips wrote in a blog post. "...If these petitions are fostering a debate that might not otherwise take place about the issues Americans care about, that's a positive thing."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.