President Barack Obama, once a community organizer, swayed the public largely via a heavily funded grass-roots campaign, which saw tremendous presence on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other online outlets.
Now as he begins to push many ambitious and challenging legislative initiatives, he's turning to these same internet outlets, retooling from election mode into a means of garnering public support. In doing so he's setting an archetype likely to be followed by Presidents and policy makers to come.
The new group, Organizing for America, housed at the Democratic National Committee, (rather than the White House) will help Obama direct his campaigns. It will communicate with an army of volunteers and supporters via text message, email, and internet sites.
The move in some ways echoes President Bush's numerous public addresses and news conferences, which saw him trying to skip by the press and take his message directly to the people. Likewise, President Obama plans to try to skip the media, while delivering his message directly to the public, albeit via a more high tech mode.
Where past Presidents recorded a weekly radio address, President Obama records a weekly YouTube video. The videos are also posted to the White House website. His video last week discussing the bailout package garnered 600,000 hits in a single day.
One major obstacle that President Obama faces in communicating via the internet is restrictions on his list of 13 million supporters' email addresses, which he previously compiled. He is unable to use this list, due to restrictions on such data compiled for political (election-related) purposes. The DNC is starting from scratch a new list, which will be valid as it’s created solely to help convey President Obama's message. To help jump start it, the DNC has been allowed by law to email a message to the previous listing inviting them to join the new list.
The organizers, determination, vigor, and a solid plan face big challenges in accomplishing their goals of reaching the masses via technology. Describes David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager and one of the organizers of this effort, "This has obviously never been undertaken before. So it’s going to be a little trial and error."
That might be an understatement, considering the group has yet to feature a fully developed website, reach funding agreements with the DNC, and start its own fund-raising. One thing the organization does have going for it is a clever reference to the name of his former campaign organization with the organization's initials, O.F.A., conveniently also applying to the prior Obama for America campaign.
As well as organizational challenges, President Obama's organizers face division within his own party. Some in Congress fear that he will use the new organization as a means to lobby the public to pressure members of Congress on legislation. Mr. Plouffe tries to mollify these critics, stating, "This is not a political campaign. This is not a ‘call or e-mail your member of Congress’ organization."
Rather he and President Obama view the organization as a two-way street, to both offer information on the President's message, and to get feedback from the public on issues.
Some see the new efforts as a result of a public DIY spirit when it comes to journalism. Says Macon Phillips, the “new media” director for Mr. Obama’s administration, "Historically the media has been able to draw out a lot of information and characterize it for people. And there’s a growing appetite from people to do it themselves."
However, others in the journalistic community, on both sides of the political aisle, are fearful that the new initiative is an attempt to create a government-controlled news outlet to supplant independent news outlets, and further that it could indeed succeed in doing so. Bill Kovach, the chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, "They’re beginning to create their own journalism, their own description of events of the day, but it’s not an independent voice making that description. It’s troublesome until we know how it’s going to be used and the degree to which it can be used on behalf of the people, and not on behalf of only one point of view."
Thus the organizational, social, and political challenges have only just begun as President Obama tries to continue to use the internet to further his message.