MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. President-elect Barack Obama is putting together his Cabinet, the administration's insiders. But this next story is about what job, if any, can be done by Mr. Obama's huge grassroots network. The Obama campaign built up a database with millions of names and addresses. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, this database, plus the campaign's online network, could be a powerful tool once Mr. Obama takes office.
PETER OVERBY: Candidate Barack Obama talked about the future of his sophisticated organization last April at a small gathering in Indianapolis.
(Soundbite of Obama speech, April 2008)
President-elect BARACK OBAMA: 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.
OVERBY: And a big part of that structure is the database. It includes 13 million email addresses from people who volunteered, gave money, went to rallies, or just bought T-shirts. So where does that trove of information go now?
Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG (President, NDN): I think there will be choices. I don't think there's only going to be one place.
OVERBY: Simon Rosenberg is founder of NDN, a center-left think tank. He's a big proponent of the internet-savvy politicking used by the Obama campaign. He says Mr. Obama could do what other presidents have traditionally done, and 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.
Mr. ROSENBERG: There are some people who want to do it in a more partisan way and feel comfortable with that. There are others who are 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.
OVERBY: So a second alternative is to take the list into the White House. Then the president could ask his supporters to pressure Congress on important bills. That probably wouldn't do much for White House-congressional relations. And there's an ownership problem. The database belongs to the president-elect and his campaign. Using it in the White House would likely make it government property. Jan Baran is a longtime campaign finance lawyer for Republicans.
Mr. JAN BARAN (Republican Campaign Finance Lawyer): 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.
OVERBY: Mr. Obama could keep his campaign committee going, but no president has ever done that. Or he could create a new political action committee. That's never happened before, either. The closest comparison is Ronald Reagan. He turned over his grassroots organization to a new PAC in 1976 after he lost his first presidential bid. Another possibility? A tax-exempt entity to promote Mr. Obama's issues. Again, though, no president has ever done that. And the tax code sets too many limits. Really, Washington is speculating so much about the database because that's what politicos know. But with the Obama organization, it's just the beginning.
Mr. MICAH SIFRY (Executive Editor, PersonalDemocracyForum.com): Anyone who imagines that all the power is in who controls the list misunderstands that we are no longer in the age of lists, we are in the age of networks.
OVERBY: That's Micah Sifry, executive editor of the Web site PersonalDemocracyForum.com.
Mr. SIFRY: This has never happened before. We've never had a president get elected with the backing of something that looks like a social movement.
OVERYBY: A social movement depends on grassroots networks. The Obama campaign nurtured its networks on the Web site my.BarackObama.com. Here's the candidate talking about his volunteers back in April.
(Soundbite of Obama speech, April 2008)
President-elect OBAMA: They know each other, and they're communicating to each other through these, you know, through the Internet. And there are all kinds of different groups. And so what I want to do is to continue that after the election.
OVERBY: But Sifry says that since the election, volunteers in some states have moved on.
Mr. SIFRY: 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.
OVERBY: Now the Obama transition team is dabbling in network building. Late last month, the transition team's Web site change.gov, posed a question. What worries you most about the health care system in our country? There was a Web video with Dr. Dora Hughes of the Obama health care policy task force.
Dr. DORA HUGHES (Advisor, Obama Health Care Policy Task Force): Indeed, a critical part of our health reform efforts is making sure that every American voice is heard.
OVERBY: A spirited debate ensued, and it's still going on. By this afternoon, more than 3,600 comments had been posted. But if President Obama wants to use the Internet this way in office, the government will need newer computers, and he'll need to change the law. This sort of quick, informal idea gathering is forbidden by the Paperwork Reduction Act. The act dates from 1995. So it's a lifetime behind what's possible with current technology, like many other things Mr. Obama will find in Washington. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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