The Interactive Presidency

BY Joel Bleifuss

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Obama’s 13 million supporters hope their new president will take his cues from them—that their voices will be heard above those of status quo Democrats and corporate flacks

President-elect Barack Obama owns the names, e-mail addresses and gigabytes of other data on 13 million Americans who signed up to receive news from his campaign. Those 13 million – 3.1 million of whom contributed a total of $700 million – account for 19 percent of the 67 million Americans who voted for him.

This corps of supporters could change the American political landscape.

Centrist Democrats may have to learn how to deal with a galvanized electorate. Will the armies of the Internet force members of Congress to retool careers that were built on cultivating politics as usual?

Will pundits find their role as media filter bypassed by Obama’s direct outreach to Americans?

Washington lobbyists could have to calculate how much the corporate campaign contributions that they bundle have declined in value. After all, how do they do business in the face of a movement that is not theirs to influence?

Jay Dunn, a flack for the PR firm FD Americas, told Bloomberg news service that in the wake of Obama’s election, lobbyists will have “to be part of a larger strategy” that includes “a much more assertive grassroots community outreach.” In other words, in order to counter Obama’s netroots, K Street will have to manufacture grassroots – what is known in the PR industry as “Astroturf organizing.”

The significance of all this is not lost on Richard Viguerie. The direct mail guru of the Republican Right told Bloomberg, “It could be life-changing for American politics. It allows Obama to be independent of everybody.”

Everybody in Washington, that is. Obama’s 13 million supporters hope their new president will take his cues from them–that their voices will be heard above those of status quo Democrats and corporate flacks, and, perhaps, even sway Obama’s centrist inclinations.

On Nov. 18, Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe e-mailed the online legions and asked them to rank the following four “goals for this movement”: helping Obama “pass legislation through grassroots efforts”; electing “state and local candidates who share the same vision for our country”; training “volunteers in the organizing techniques we used to elect Barack”; and “working on local issues.”

Respondents were then offered a checklist of 26 issues they would be “interested in volunteering or organizing around,” such as “LGBT Issues,” “War in Iraq,” “Environment and Global Warming” and “Healthcare.”

Following that, more than 1,500 people signed up to host “Change is Coming” house parties on Dec. 13 and 14 to discuss what they want to do. According to Christopher Hass, the “Obama HQ Blogger,” the “input” received from the surveys and house parties “will help guide the future of this grassroots movement.”

The incoming administration has also set up Change.gov, a website that allows people to register and discuss policy on its blog. Registered readers can rate the proposals put forth, moving the most popular ideas to the top of the blog.

“Before our eyes, we are witnessing the beginning of a rebooting of the American political system,” writes Micah Sifry on the blog of TechPresident.com.

Of course, this “movement” runs the risk of devolving into astroturf. The limitation of Obama’s online operation is that, since he owns it, it can’t challenge him should he backslide. Yet to the extent that it circumvents the propaganda of the right, Obama’s online army could make the difference in realizing a progressive agenda.


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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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