He was a Democrat who campaigned on change and won a presidential election that hinged on the economy. During the transition, he vowed to tap new technologies to communicate with the masses, and his staff dreamed of using Internet and video to bypass the press and speak directly to the American people.
Sixteen years ago, that forward-looking president, William Jefferson Clinton, and his aides fantasized about a wired presidency. And now another Democrat, Barack Obama, is aiming to turn the White House digital and in the process transform the bully pulpit.
“Barack Obama’s use of the Internet to communicate with the American public and the world will have a larger impact on the political media ecology than the declaration that the world was round had on the shipping industry in 1492,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of techPresident.com and Personal Democracy Forum, organizations that look at the relationship between technology and politics.
“It’s not only going to be monumental because of his own behavior,” Rasiej said, “but because the Internet itself has evolved to such a large degree that it’s carrying him.”
It is unclear exactly how traditional press procedures will work in the Obama administration, which has aggressive plans to use new media to take its case, unfiltered, directly to the people. But beyond the obvious and generic – using the Internet to rally the troops – the transition team has not yet worked out the details of how the White House can best exploit the Obama campaign’s technological know-how and its fabled list of e-mail addresses.
In an early indication of the transition team’s electronic savvy and drive to move beyond the traditional means of communication, President-elect Obama delivered electronic messages last week to a Global Climate Summit hosted by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and to a special Olympic committee in Europe that is selecting the site for the 2016 summer games. Both messages resonated long and loud in the Internet’s echo chamber.
“They’ve been doing a brilliant job in their communications,” said Gerald Rafshoon who was White House communications director under President Jimmy Carter. “It’s the best I’ve ever seen. It’s been disciplined. It’s been innovative.”
Obama transition spokeswoman Jen Psaki promised “one of the most open and transparent press offices in White House history.”
“Americans now get information in a broad variety of ways, and so we are expanding the ways we reach them,” Psaki said in an e-mail.
“In addition to pushing information out, though, the internet offers an exciting new opportunity to bring new voices in — and it is that conversation about America's future that we are starting to have through Change.gov,” the transition’s Web site, which solicits public comment on government programs and policies.
“Our focus has always been about opening up the process and the government to the American people,” Psaki said. That includes running “one of the most open and transparent press offices in White House history,” she added.
If Obama successfully exploits his use of new media, he could strengthen his political hand and make himself more the master of his own destiny, similar to the techniques Ronald Reagan used to build public support for his agenda in the 1980s.
Reagan, whom Obama has expressed admiration for, gained notoriety as the Great Communicator for using television to plead his case directly to the people, often circumventing Congress and the press.
“What Reagan did with TV was recognize that being president was an act, and he played the part perfectly,” said Rasiej. “And what Obama can do is recognize that the Internet is not about him — it’s about us.”
Still, there is a long tradition of official White House press protocol. When the president is in Washington, D.C., for instance, his press secretary holds a late-morning briefing. If the president is traveling, there’s a gaggle of reporters on Air Force One. And there’s always a press pool following the president, whether he’s in town or out.
In addition, bypassing the filter of the press to deliver their own message to the people is a popular presidential refrain.
“Just about every president has talked about how they’re going to go to directly to the people,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University and author of “Managing the President’s Message: The White House Communications Operation.”
“The reality is that when you do so, in trying to go directly to the people, you end up having to go through the White House press corps.”
Many administrations have tried to change the dynamics. The Clinton administration’s communications team sparked a journalist revolt early on when it closed the door between the “lower press office,” where the deputy press secretaries and lower-level press assistants sit, and the “upper press office,” home to the top communications officials. The hallway between the two places was a popular gathering spot for reporters, as well as a conduit for exchanging information, and closing the door had practical as well as symbolic implications. The move was reversed fairly quickly.
“Campaigning is different than governing,” Kumar said. “You’re going to have to compromise.”
George W. Bush has had a contentious eight-year relationship with the press, marred by the disclosure that a few “columnists” were paid to write Bush-friendly pieces, and by the media’s belief that it was misled about Iraq intelligence in the run-up to the war. Bush by some counts has held fewer press conferences than any of his modern predecessors.
In contrast, Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn hosted “media dinners” with journalists in their private White House quarters. During his first three years in office, Carter held a press conference every two weeks, as he promised to during the campaign.
“That actually was too much,” Rafshoon conceded. “It was overexposure.”
In the nuts and bolts of dealing with the media, the Obama transition has largely adhered to tradition. And its attempt to use technology to bypass the press and reach the public directly also fits a familiar pattern of presidents and their staffs trying to control the message and the spin.
But how Obama fares in the media as his administration ages and the strength of GOP opposition, among other factors, will play a large role in determining how his administration tries to harness the power of the Internet and use it to shape and push his agenda – particularly if his approval ratings go south and his policies loose traction.
As the late Michael Deaver, the father of the photo-op who worked in the Reagan White House, once told the Los Angeles Times, “If you don't set the agenda in this town, others will set it for you. And when the president gives up the agenda, he is lost.”