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The wired White House

Nightly News
Click for video: Barack Obama
may have to give up his BlackBerry
phone, but his administration will have other high-tech tools at its disposal. Watch Savannah Guthrie's report for "NBC Nightly News."


After a historic presidential election, the tech-savvy campaigners who helped put Barack Obama in the White House say the nation is in for an equally historic four years of tech-savvy governance.

The way the Obama campaign used blogs, texting, social networking and other Web 2.0 tools to win this month's election is just "the tip of the iceberg," said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the political advocacy group NDN.

Those tools are quickly being adapted for the transition to the Obama administration: A new Web site for the president-elect, Change.gov, made its debut on the day after the election, offering supporters an outlet for their suggestions and stories as well as their resumes. In the two weeks since then, the transition team says more than 200,000 job applications have flooded in.

Obama's weekly video address, which premiered last Saturday as the response to President Bush's weekly radio address, also hints at the shape of things to come.

Barack Obama addresses the nation in a YouTube video released Nov. 15.


Rosenberg said it will be common for government agencies to host videos and blogs (as the Transportation Security Administration does already).

"You're going to see competition at the weekly Cabinet meeting between the DHS secretary and the HHS secretary over who had more views on their YouTube video, and who had more comments on their blog," he said.

Global Webcasting of presidential addresses and press briefings - perhaps translated into multiple languages - is likely to become routine. That policy could well filter down to other governmental agencies and even other governments, Rosenberg said.

He pointed to the example of David Cameron, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, who stars in a series of "Webcameron" videos that touch upon his party's policies as well as his personal life. "You can watch videos of him washing dishes in his sink," Rosenberg said.

Ironically, President Obama himself will be much less connected to everyday networks than Candidate Obama was. For example, it looks as if he'll have to put his BlackBerry aside in order to comply with federal security and recordkeeping requirements. That's the sensible thing to do. For cautionary tales, you need look no further than this week's report that Verizon Wireless employees sneaked a peek at Obama's cell-phone records ... or, for that matter, the royal flap that arose over Prince Charles' intercepted cell-phone calls.

But whether or not Obama uses a BlackBerry or a laptop in the Oval Office really isn't the key issue. The more important question has to do with how Obama's White House operation will use Web 2.0 tools to follow up on his campaign's technological successes.

"This is the first time that we've had a social movement behind a president as he comes into office," said Raven Brooks, executive director of Netroots Nation. Working through tech-savvy aides, Obama could enlist that movement to help push his agenda forward.

"It's going to be remarkable to see what happens when there are members of Congress or groups that get in the way of this incredible machine as he tries to pass his 100-days agenda," Rosenberg said in a Nov. 7 video postmortem on the election.

NDN's Simon Rosenberg assesses campaign technology on Nov. 7.


Obama's online army
For now, Obama's new-media experts are catching their breath, reflecting on what they've done over the past 21 months and starting to think about what their next steps will be.

Scott Goodstein, who served as external online director at Obama for America, was in charge of attracting millions of social networkers to the cause via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other gathering places in cyberspace. "I was very lucky and fortunate to have a campaign that was willing to take the time and opportunity to recognize the power of viral communication and more information about these social networks," he told me.

Goodstein said the secret of success lay in taking advantage of the networking tools already being used by a rapidly increasing proportion of the population: computers, cell phones and other mobile devices. "Usually, campaigns are 10 or 15 years behind other consumer trends," he said.

For instance, one of the tools devised for the campaign was a downloadable application that could turn an iPhone into a hand-held political operative. "We were able to organize people's address books based on who their friends were in battleground states," Goodstein said. The campaign could also send out messages tailored to different geographic areas.

Such tools helped Obama and his aides build up and manage a record-shattering network: The Washington Post quotes campaign sources as saying that their e-mail list contained upwards of 13 million addresses. Two million people created profiles on MyBarackObama, the campaign's social networking site, and a million people signed up for text messaging. Volunteers made millions of phone calls on Obama's behalf through an Internet-based "virtual phone bank." More than 3 million supporters contributed nearly $650 million to the campaign, with more than $500 million of that raised online.

Figures like those could lead you to think that the magic is in the technology alone, but Goodstein insisted that this year's success was due to the message as well as the multimedia. "The tools are an additional channel for organizing, but the message and the campaign and the excitement around Senator Obama are really why people wanted to come together," he said.

Now that the campaign is over, the campaigners are either joining the transition, or taking on other causes - or, like Goodstein, taking a break. Obama's top political organizers are reportedly meeting in Chicago to consider where to go from here. (Which brings to mind the question asked by Robert Redford's character at the end of "The Candidate," a classic political flick: "What do we do now?")

What will the army want to do?
Just this week, campaign manager David Plouffe sent out an online survey to the Obama faithful, asking whether and how they would like to stay involved in the movement. "Would you like to continue to volunteer in your community as part of an Obama organization?" the survey asked. Among the choices: promoting Obama's legislative initiatives, working for like-minded candidates or training volunteers "in the organizing techniques we used to elect Barack."

 "I saw that as a pretty direct 'ask,' saying, 'Now that the election is over, who's really interested in staying involved?'" Brooks said.

Rosenberg said the volunteer army that emerges from the process will be a formidable asset. "Even if they spend 20 or 30 hours a year that they would not have spent otherwise, that becomes transformative when it's multiplied by millions," he said.

What will that army want to do? This week, Change.gov as well as MyBarackObama (which are separate operations, in accordance with federal law) pointed people to a volunteer organization that's coping with California's wildfires - but Brooks doubts that Obama's operation will serve merely as a switchboard for other people's causes.

"Whatever organization gets formed out of this is going to own it," he said. "I don't really see them saying, 'Go out and sign up at the Sierra Club,' or anything like that."

Governance by Web site
Some foot soldiers in the Obama organizing effort are taking the "what next" question into their own hands - and setting up Web sites to help answer the question. "Fix This, Barack" lets online users suggest priorities and vote them up or down. ObamaCTO does something similar, as does WhiteHouse2.

Jim Gilliam, a veteran of left-leaning Brave New Films, told me he set up WhiteHouse2 as a model of what he'd like the real White House Web site to look like. "It seemed so simple," he said. "All you would need to do is add comments."

The priority-setting site is continually being fleshed out with more features ... including comments. "I hope that people will use it to organize, and that's what will give it critical mass and get people engaged," he said. He resists suggestions that the site is weighted toward left-wing or progressive causes. In fact, one of the top issues on WhiteHouse2's list is establishment of the Fair Tax system, due to a campaign pushed by conservative talk-show host Neal Boortz.

"Being able to find common ground on these things is very much what Obama is about, actually," Gilliam said. He's looking forward to seeing how the future president's agenda will move the needle one way or the other after Inauguration Day.

"People who are coming here are definitely saying, 'We're going to change the world,'" he said.

Connecting from the bottom up
The world has already been changing inside the Beltway, said Steve Ressler, founder of the GovLoop social-networking Web site. Ressler's venture has been called a "Facebook for state and federal government employees," but the site's connections don't stop at the U.S. border. GovLoop's 2,800 users include Army personnel in Germany as well as government workers in New Zealand, Ressler said.

Ressler pointed to online ventures such as Intellipedia (an online forum reserved for the intelligence community) and Apps for Democracy (a contest set up by the District of Columbia's government) as evidence that government officials are already willing to experiment. And he said GovLoop's users are looking forward to more.

"With these new Web 2.0 tools you can start connecting from the bottom up," Ressler told me.

But what happens if the bottom-up network disagrees with the top-down guidance? We already saw a bit of that during the debate over whether or not Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who endorsed GOP candidate John McCain, should have been allowed back among the Democratic fold. The decision to let bygones be bygones sparked some dissension in the Netroots ranks this week.

Once Obama is in charge, Web 2.0 tools could be used to hold him accountable for his campaign promises, truly bringing a bottom-up approach to governance, Brooks said. "This is a unique point in our history where the average citizen is able to do that," he said.

The future of politics
By the time 2012 rolls around, the political frontier just might have moved on to, say, Web 3.0. Remember that iPhone app? Video e-mail alerts and mobile-phone fund-raising may well become routine by the time Obama runs again. That could eventually become a turnoff for some folks - just as political TV ads can be a turnoff today.

"The problem with e-mail, and to some extent with social networking, is the amount of clutter and the amount of spam," Goodstein said. "That, with time, will change. But for right now, it's effective, efficient and inexpensive, and that is a pretty good recipe."

Rosenberg, who admits he's an optimist about such things, focuses on the bright side: Can high-tech politics change the world? Not just the country, but the world?

"Today, about half the world has mobile phones, and in the life of Obama's presidency, the majority of people in the world will have a phone with video capability," he said. "It will mean that the ability of the president to speak not only to the citizens of the United States, but the citizens of the world, will be unprecedented in history."

Update for 2:25 p.m. ET Nov. 21: In the weeks ahead, you can look forward to some new twists in the Obama transition team's Web site - and almost certainly in the White House's Web site as well. That's the word from Thomas Gensemer, managing partner for Blue State Digital, the company that created the Web sites for the Obama campaign as well as Change.gov.

Gensemer passed along these gems in an interview this morning, conducted by phone just as he was about to return from the opening of Blue State's London office:

  • Gensemer told me that one of the keys to keeping people engaged after the election will be to recognize their efforts. That's why Change.gov asked visitors to share their stories and suggestions with the transition team. But what will happen to all those submissions? Are they just piling up on a hard drive somewhere? "I would say, 'Wait! It's been [only] two weeks,'" Gensemer answered. "Those are likely to be packaged and proudly displayed in the days to come."
  • He expects to see significant upgrades in the WhiteHouse.gov site once Obama takes office. "The bar is quite low for a White House program," he observed. Change.gov is designed to serve as a "temporary thing," bridging the gap between election and inauguration. So does Change.gov just go away on Jan. 20? Not likely. "The URL is so good that they'll find some good things to do with it," Gensemer said.
  • During the campaign, MyBarackObama helped channel the tremendous enthusiasm that surrounded Obama's campaign. "Now the challenge is to keep it alive for both the administration and for the ongoing campaigning efforts," Gensemer said. Wait ... didn't the campaign just end? "I think 2010 has already started, and even 2012 for the Republicans," he said.
  • Web 2.0 tools have revolutionized politics, but the end result should not be just to have people sitting in front of their computers, watching YouTube videos. "The real heart of the program is when the online world meets the offline world, " Gensemer said. That meant making a contribution ... or making plans for a neighborhood party ... or making phone calls as part of Obama's formidable virtual phone bank. On the back end, Web 2.0 can track how strategies are working in real time. "All the metrics fall out of your e-mail ... and how people behave with the Web property," Gensemer said.
  • The online Obama campaign was a watershed, but Gensemer said the lessons learned can be (and will be) applied to less momentous campaigns as well. "Campaigning has been changed," he said. The secret of success isn't contained in fancy gizmos, however. "It's less about where the technology is going," Gensemer said. "It's more about how all these people have been trained. For the first time in many of those people's lives, they felt like their volunteerism in the campaign mattered."

Update for 3:20 p.m. ET Nov. 24: Newsweek's story on the wired White House says the transition team is considering setting up a nonprofit organization that would buy the address/phone/e-mail lists of Obama campaign supporters. "The nonprofit would serve as a conduit, letting the administration maintain indirect contact with supporters," Newsweek reports.

Update for 5:30 p.m. ET Dec. 2: It turns out that the State Department has been blogging for weeks on Dipnote, and there's even a Dipnote Twitter feed.

To learn more about the technology of politics, check out Personal Democracy Forum's TechPresident blog. You also might enjoy Ariana Huffington's interview with Google CEO (and Obama adviser) Eric Schmidt on "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC. Many thanks to Aaron Oesterle, a.k.a. Ferris Valyn, for his insights into the Netroots movement. As always, feel free to add your comments below.