The Fate Of Obama's Net Roots Network

A woman on her BlackBerry phone in Virginia i

A woman works on her BlackBerry phone on Aug. 21, 2008, in Chester, Va., after she received instructions explaining how to get a text message from the Obama campaign announcing the identity of his running mate. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
A woman on her BlackBerry phone in Virginia

A woman works on her BlackBerry phone on Aug. 21, 2008, in Chester, Va., after she received instructions explaining how to get a text message from the Obama campaign announcing the identity of his running mate.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Obama Asks Supporters: What's Next?

Just two weeks after the historic election, Obama campaign officials sent an e-mail to roughly 10 million "Obamamaniacs" and volunteers who had registered with the campaign online, asking them what the president-elect should tackle in the months ahead.

"Share your campaign experience and your thoughts on the best way to keep supporting our agenda for change," began the e-mail from campaign manager David Plouffe. At the bottom of the note was a standard button that asks people to donate money.

The "supporters survey," as the campaign calls it, initially collects personal information from its respondents, including one's occupation, racial and ethnic identity and religious and political affiliations.

Then, it asks for actual input. How would you like to remain involved? By helping President Obama pass legislation? By electing local candidates who share the same vision? What issues matter to you?

Commentators and bloggers have called this unprecedented and perhaps a foreshadowing of the way a Web-savvy White House could communicate with the public. The survey falls on the heels of an election cycle in which Obama broke fundraising records by raising millions of dollars online and by using tools such as campaign-produced YouTube videos to reach voters directly.

Nearly a month after Election Day, it's still not clear what happens to the campaign organization built by President-elect Barack Obama.

The organization has two crown jewels. One is a database with 13 million e-mail addresses. While some of them are bogus or came from nonsupporters (such as journalists covering the campaign), probably 10 million or more came from supporters — those who helped build the campaign's historic war chest, who organized in counties and precincts, or who simply attended a rally or bought a T-shirt. The other jewel is the "net roots" style network that turned out voters for Obama in the primaries and that helped him carry traditionally Republican states in November.

The depth and breadth of these elements appear to be unprecedented in presidential politics. Candidate Obama talked about the future last April, at a small gathering in Indianapolis, saying: "One of the things I'm really proud of about this campaign is I think we've built a structure that can sustain itself after the campaign."

In Washington, the burning question now is where that trove of information might go.

"I think there will be choices. I don't think there's going to be only one place," says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the center-left think tank NDN and a big proponent of the Internet-savvy politicking used by the Obama campaign.

Rosenberg says Obama could do what other presidents have traditionally done: turn over his lists of supporters to the national party committee. But people joined the Obama campaign for all sorts of reasons. Some unknown percentage of them want to remain politically active, but not as Democrats.

"There are some people who'll want to [get involved] in a more partisan way and feel comfortable with that," Rosenberg says. "There are others who're going to want to do it just as a citizen, regardless of their political party, who'll want to help potentially on a single issue."

So a second alternative is to take the list into the White House. Then the president could ask supporters to pressure Congress on important bills, a strategy that most likely wouldn't benefit the administration in its relations with lawmakers. There's also an ownership question. Legally, the database belongs to the president-elect and his campaign. Using it in the White House would very likely make it government property.

"I think the president-elect's legal advisers are going to have to confront some practical as well as legal considerations in how they're going to use the campaign resources," says Jan Baran, a veteran campaign finance lawyer for Republicans.

As a third alternative, Obama could keep his campaign committee going, something no president has ever done. Or he could create a new political action committee. That's never happened before, either; in the closest comparison, Ronald Reagan turned over his grass-roots organization to a new PAC in 1976 after losing his first presidential bid.

Alternative No. 4 would be a tax-exempt entity, using the database to promote Obama's issues. Once again, though, no president has ever done such a thing. And the tax code sets too many limits to make it a comfortable option.

Really, Washington is speculating so much about the database because that's what the politicos know. But with the Obama organization, it's just the beginning.

"Anyone who imagines that all power is in who controls the lists misunderstands that we are no longer in the age of lists, we are in the age of networks," says Micah Sifry, executive editor of the Web site www.PersonalDemocracyForum.com. "This has never happened before. We've never had a president get elected with the backing of something that looks like a social movement."

Just as a social movement depends on grass-roots networks, the Obama campaign nurtured its networks on the Web site my.BarackObama.com. Back in April, Obama said of his volunteer organizers: "They know each other and they're communicating to each other through the Internet, and there are all kinds of different groups. And so what I want to do is continue that after the election."

But Sifry says that since the election, volunteers in some states have moved on: "For example, the folks in Connecticut are trying to keep something going. They've created a site for themselves where they have more control of their own information than if they stayed on my.BarackObama.com."

Now the Obama transition team is dabbling in network-building. Late last month, the transition team's Web site, www.change.gov, posed a question: "What worries you most about the health care system in our country?"

The Web presentation included a video featuring Dr. Dora Hughes of the Obama health care policy task force. "Indeed," she said, "a critical part of our health reform efforts is making sure that every American voice is heard."

A spirited debate ensued, involving health care professionals, scholars and consumers. It's still going on; by this afternoon, more than 3,600 comments had been posted.

But if President-elect Obama wants to use the Internet this way in the Oval Office, the government will need newer computers. And he'll need to change the law. The Paperwork Reduction Act forbids this sort of quick, informal idea-gathering.

The act dates from 1995. So it's a lifetime behind what's possible with modern communications technologies — as are many other things that Obama will find in Washington.

Going Global — 'Net Roots'-Style?

As Washington speculates on how President-elect Barack Obama might import his high-tech campaign methods into government, the commentary has focused on using his grass-roots network and ground organizers to rally Americans around legislative initiatives or to lean on recalcitrant lawmakers.

That's an easy reach for political imaginations. Every self-respecting congressional candidate uses e-mail these days. Nobody thinks of rounding up campaign cash without some Internet fundraising.

But then there are the more adventurous, like Obama. Last August, his campaign skipped the press conference — and the media generally — to announce via text messaging that Sen. Joseph Biden would be Obama's running mate. And on the final night of the Democratic convention in Denver, Obama supporters awaiting their candidate at a football stadium flooded local cell phone nets by sending a reported 30,000 text messages to the campaign headquarters.

To harness that sort of power, Simon Rosenberg of the think tank NDN envisions a scenario that combines the Obama campaign's high-tech skills and Obama's new foreign policy agenda: "Every time the president makes a major speech, they'll be releasing versions of it translated into the 15 or 20 major languages of the world. So if you have a cell phone with video capacity on the streets of Dubai, you'll be able to watch an Arabic translation of the president's remarks on your phone."

It's a provocative idea. It raises questions such as how President Reagan's famous line, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" would have played if Reagan had had cell phone video technology. Looking forward, maybe the question is how we'd feel if other countries' leaders started beaming videos to our cell phones.

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