The Obama presidential campaign indisputably used new media better than any before it to build a virtual army of grassroots supporters, and to wield that army as a powerful tool for fundraising, rapid response messaging, and boots-on-the-ground campaigning.
But the energy that surrounded Obama and his team after the election, and supporters' expectations that President Obama would be the empowering community organizer that was Candidate Obama, fizzled as it became clear--campaign slogans notwithstanding--this administration represented less change then it would have the country believe.
After the election, commentators buzzed about the potential for a small-d democratic upheaval in the American political process that the Obama camp's mastery of new media could bring about. Newsweek summed up the excitement in the lede of an article in late November:
Barack Obama is the first major politician who really "gets" the Internet. Sure, Howard Dean used the Web to raise money. But Obama used it to build an army. And now, that army of digital kids expects to stick around and help him govern. Crowd-sourced online brainstorming sessions? Web sites where regular folks hash out policy ideas and vote yea or nay online? A new government computer infrastructure that lets people get a look into the workings of Washington, including where the money flows and how decisions get made? Yes to all those and more. "This was not just an election—this was a social movement," says Don Tapscott, author of "Grown Up Digital," which chronicles the lives of 20-somethings raised on computers and the Web. "I'm convinced," Tapscott says, "that we're in the early days of fundamental change in the nature of democracy itself."
The notion was widespread that Obama's mastery of technology could allow him to really deliver on the "change" he promised throughout the campaign--to make government more transparent, responsive, and accountable. Obama's supporters themselves expected the election to be only the beginning of their involvement in the political process.
"A powerful new lobbying force is coming to town: Barack Obama's triumphant army of 3.1 million Internet-linked donors and volunteers," wrote Frank Greve for McClatchy's a few days after the election. Greve quoted one supporter who said she would be "sitting at the phone, asking, 'What do you want me to do next? I'm ready.' "
Throughout the campaign, Obama and his team pushed a message of individual empowerment, and vowed to fight "the special interests who dominate on a day-to-day basis in terms of legislative activity."
As it turns out, Obama's actions as president have been far divorced from his rhetoric during the campaign. In a hard-hitting examination of the president's use of new media (or lack thereof) since the election for the express purpose of governing, liberal media commentator Micah Sifry writes,
The truth is that Obama was never nearly as free of dependence on big money donors as the reporting suggested, nor was his movement as bottom-up or people-centric as his marketing implied. And this is the big story of 2009, if you ask me, the meta-story of what did, and didn't happen, in the first year of Obama's administration. The people who voted for him weren't organized in any kind of new or powerful way, and the special interests--banks, energy companies, health interests, car-makers, the military-industrial complex--sat first at the table and wrote the menu. Myth met reality, and came up wanting.
(For a fantastic summary of the economic consequences of the Obama disconnect, pick up a copy of Tim Carney's new book "Obamanomics". Carney writes that Obama's "anti-corporate rhetoric is precisely the opposite of reality. In truth, President Obama's policy prescriptions spell profits for the biggest and most well connected businesses." Full disclosure: I was a summer intern at the Washington Examiner, for which Carney is a columnist.)
While most of Obama's base was shocked that he did not live up to expectations, some conservative commentators predicted as much, and were vindicated. Among them was Mark Tapscott (unrelated to Don) of the Washington Examiner, who shortly after the election predicted,
At some point in his presidency, Obama will reach a crossroads where he will have to choose between the two models and the policies and politics that define them.
My hunch is that moment will come on the health care issue sometime in the next two years. Since his election victory in November, Obama and his key health care advisors have made it clear he plans to move toward a Medicare-like national health plan, with government bureaucrats running the health care system for everybody. That’s classic 20th century, top-down centralized, big government liberalism.
The problem is that, while this approach satisfies old guard liberal special interests like federal bureaucrats, trial lawyers and labor unions, it puts Obama on the wrong side of the Net-Geners at the heart of his campaign who provided its technological sophistication and youthful idealism.
Net-Geners view the world through a different lens. Because they’ve grown up in a digital world, the workplace values they most esteem include “speed, freedom, openness, innovation, authenticity and playfulness,” according to Tapscott and Williams.
It won’t take Obama’s younger troops long to realize there can never be any room whatsoever for such values in an expanded federal health care bureaucracy overseen by a new Federal Health Board. I mean, come on, speed or innovation from bureaucrats who typically require a minimum of 18 months just to develop one new regulation?...
Obama will have to choose whether his presidency will represent the dead hand of liberalism’s past or the web-centric future of empowered individuals continuously making life-choices at cyber-speed.
In the inevitable conflict between technological empowerment and technocratic bureaucracy, the latter seems to have won out under the Obama presidency. Candidate Obama insisted that he--"we", as he liked to say--would bring about change in Washington by taking on proponents of the status quo.
This talking point--that change would only come through an overwhelming grassroots effort to combat its opponents--could be attributed to legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, who said in his landmark work Rules for Radicals, that the organizer "knows that all new ideas arise from conflict; that every time man has had a new idea it has been a challenge to the sacred ideas of the past and the present and inevitably a conflict has raged."
The organizer's use of power as a means to empower others, by Alinsky's account, stands in direct contrast to the use of power by the leader, who "goes on to build power to fulfill his desires, to hold and wield the power for purposes both social and personal."
In citing Alinsky, new media commentator Ralph Benko notes that Obama has chosen the path of the leader, not the organizer. He has defied Alinsky's code--and his own rhetoric--by pursuing power as a means to enact reforms he deems favorable, rather than a means to allow others to enact change as they see fit--presumably those who had previously not had the power to do so.
The tech-presidency seems to be yet another area in which Obama has come up short of his supporters' expectations. Time and again, he has shown himself to be just another politician, rather than the messianic agent of he personified during the campaign. Obama the outsider became Obama the smooth political dealer, and his supporters' hopes for a new era of transparency--facilitated by new media and technology--ran head on into the reality of Washington hardball.