Obama White House to Marshal Online Army

Online Supporters Represent a Powerful Tool for Incoming President


Nov. 11, 2008 —

President-elect Obama will take office in January with a weapon no president has ever had at his disposal: an online army of more than 10 million supporters who can now be put to use to help carry out a sweeping agenda.

The vast lists of e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers compiled by the Obama campaign represent an opportunity for the incoming administration to establish a digital presidency that takes advantage of both new technologies and the wide enthusiasm that greeted Obama's candidacy.

In the six days since Election Day, Obama's transition team has taken a series of initial steps intended to turn Obama's online networks of supporters into governing tools.

Obama aides set up a new Web site, www.change.gov, to keep backers engaged through Inauguration Day and beyond, and have made contact with key local volunteers to keep them in the fold.

The supporters -- including more than 3 million people who gave money to Obama's campaign -- provide Obama the opportunity to communicate directly with supporters in new ways, in real time and at little cost. He'll be able to solicit input from a wide range of voters -- and, potentially, pressure members of Congress to follow Obama's lead on key legislation.

"We're in completely uncharted territory," said Micah Sifry, a co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, which tracks the uses of new technologies in politics. "You've got all these people connected. Maybe they go to the White House Web site not just to tour the China Room, but to be guided to where the pressure points are in politics. That's huge."

But any effort to turn a political operation into a governing one raises legal issues. Privacy concerns may limit the White House's access to the lists built by the campaign, and overtly political communications will need to be kept separate from official administration activities.

Rush Limbaugh told his listeners shortly after the election that he fears that the Obama administration will use its lists to conduct a permanent campaign -- with Obama trying to assert near-total control of Washington.

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"The Obama presidency will continue in campaign mode just as Clinton's did," Limbaugh said. "Here comes the Internet onslaught."

With no real precedent from previous administrations, Obama aides and Democratic Party leaders are weighing several options for turning the voter contact information and social networking communities maintained by the campaign into vehicles for enhanced governance.

Among the possibilities being discussed, according to party officials: a new White House communications team focused on using new technologies; the creation of a new entity outside the White House to advocate the Obama agenda -- a move that would answer concerns about using government resources for political gains; or having the Democratic National Committee -- led by an Obama-selected team -- administer the voter-contact lists and connectivity tools.

Chris Hughes, who helped run the Obama campaign's new media operation after helping to found Facebook.com, wrote a short post on his Obama campaign blog last week that has generated wide buzz among the president-elect's online supporters.

"The online tools in My.BarackObama will live on," Hughes wrote. "Barack Obama supporters will continue to use the tools to collaborate and interact. Our victory on Tuesday night has opened the door to change, but it's up to all of us to seize this opportunity to bring it about."

Obama organizers appear to have considered future possibilities for its contact lists from the start. The privacy policy at BarackObama.com includes this sentence: "We may also make personal information available to organizations with similar political viewpoints and objectives, in furtherance of our own political objectives."

No other president has had an engaged online army participate in his campaign the way Obama has. His supporters -- who communicated with the campaign via e-mail, text-messaging and social networking sites such as Facebook -- provided Obama with an enormous organizing boost, a way to donate money, register voters, set up rallies and run get-out-the-vote operations.

<2>Obama Can't Push Online Fans Too Far

But taking a sprawling, nebulous network of supporters who signed up for a political campaign and getting them involved in the nitty-gritty of policymaking is no easy task.

Obama could wind up disappointing millions of backers who believe they have a stake in his presidency. Some members of Congress might balk if they believe they're being pressured by Obama's supporters, when they were elected by their own constituents.

Obama's challenge will be to keep the energy level high without the natural enthusiasm surrounding a campaign, and to keep his supporters together despite inevitable disappointments, said Peter Daou, who managed online operations for Sen. Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful presidential campaign.

"It's finding a balance out of the White House: 'You guys got us here, now we need your help,'" Daou said. "There's definitely no way it's going to be used the same way it was during a campaign."

Obama has to be careful about how he enlists his supporters, Sifry said. Push them too far, or in directions they don't want to go, and the forces he's harnessed could turn on him, he said.

"He has immense power right now. They're ready to do whatever he asks," Sifry said. "But only up to a point. At a certain point, what he asks has to be what they want. ... Armies get commanded, but this is a network, you can't command them. You can try. It won't work for very long."

Phil Musser, a Republican operative who is helping to lead an effort to expand his party's online organizing, said, "He's accountable to this e-mail list fundamentally."

"I'd expect them to build on their tactics of engaging the citizenship," Musser said. "We're going to be up against that out of the box."

Obama aides have given few hints as to how they plan to use new technologies when the new administration takes over. But they have made clear to supporters and influential allies that they don't intend to let their online enthusiasm wither until, say, the 2010 congressional elections.

The 4.3 million member MoveOn.org has committed its resources to helping advance Obama's agenda, in efforts organizers said they hope will work in concert with an Obama political operation.

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"It's incredibly important that they take what they built forward," MoveOn.org executive director Eli Pariser said. "Part of the reality of coming to Washington with a movement is that a President Obama has to be accountable to that movement in some way. His supporters will help make sure that he's delivering on what he does."

Online organizers said Obama must do more than simply disseminate information to his supporters, or ask them to contact members of Congress on his behalf. The key for his efforts will be to keep the lines of communication open, to adapt to the latest organizing tools and to make sure the administration doesn't get too far out in front of the supporters who got them there, Daou said.

"If you don't have that online engagement, providing the tools doesn't necessarily mean people are going to use them," Daou said.

Peter Greenberger, who manages political advertising for Google in Washington, said Obama could take a page from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who solicits questions from constituents via YouTube.

A political operation set up to support Obama could also target its advertising so it appears alongside news stories describing President Obama's proposals, Greenberger said.

"People are used to more of a two-way communication now," he said.

Sifry said that if Obama uses the tools right, he could change the nature of the presidency.

"With the bully pulpit, the president has always been able to go above lawmakers' heads," he said. "Now he can go between their legs."