Monday, January 26, 2009

Obama’s YouTube Presidency?

A year and a half ago, Vanity Fair declared the 2008 presidential race "the YouTube election."

Now with our apparently most tech-savvy chief executive yet, the New York Times is calling Barack Obama's administration "
the YouTube presidency":

Lyle McIntosh gave everything he could to Barack Obama’s Iowa campaign. He helped oversee an army that knocked on doors, distributed fliers and held neighborhood meetings to rally support for Mr. Obama, all the while juggling the demands of his soybean and corn farm.

Asked last week if he and others like him were ready to go all-out again, this time to help President Obama push his White House agenda, Mr. McIntosh paused.

“It’s almost like a football season or a basketball season — you go as hard as you can and then you’ve got to take a breather between the seasons,” he said, noting he found it hard to go full-bore during the general election.

Mr. McIntosh’s uncertainty suggests just one of the many obstacles the White House faces as it tries to accomplish what aides say is one of their most important goals: transforming the YouTubing-Facebooking-texting-Twittering grass-roots organization that put Mr. Obama in the White House into an instrument of government. That is something that Mr. Obama, who began his career as a community organizer, told aides was a top priority, even before he was elected.

His aides — including his campaign manager — have created a group, Organizing for America, to redirect the campaign machinery in the service of broad changes in health care and environmental and fiscal policy. They envision an army of supporters talking, sending e-mail and texting to friends and neighbors as they try to mold public opinion.

The organization will be housed in the Democratic National Committee, rather than at the White House. But the idea behind it — that the traditional ways of communicating with and motivating voters are giving way to new channels built around social networking — is also very evident in the White House’s media strategy.
Like George W. Bush before him, Mr. Obama is trying to bypass the mainstream news media and take messages straight to the public.

The most prominent example of the new strategy is his weekly address to the nation — what under previous presidents was a speech recorded for and released to radio stations on Saturday mornings. Mr. Obama instead records a video, which on Saturday he posted on the White House Web site and on YouTube; in it, he explained what he wanted to accomplish with the $825 billion economic stimulus plan working its way through Congress. By late Sunday afternoon, it had been viewed more than 600,000 times on YouTube.

The White House also faces legal limitations in terms of what it can do. Perhaps most notably, it cannot use a 13-million-person e-mail list that Mr. Obama’s team developed because it was compiled for political purposes. That is an important reason Mr. Obama has decided to build a new organization within the Democratic Party, which does not have similar restrictions.

Still, after months of discussion, aides said the whole approach remained a work in progress, even after Friday, when the organizers e-mailed a link to a video to those 13 million people announcing the creation of Organizing for America. Mr. Obama’s aides know they have a huge resource to harness, but fundamental questions remain about how it will run and precisely what organizers are hoping to accomplish.
I thought that Saturday's national video address via YouTube was a good thing. I hope the administration continues to deliver a weekly message in that format, as I simply don't take time out to listen to a radio address, but I'm always online and would like view and write about the administration's weekly initiatives if delivered in the video format.

That would be cool, frankly.

What's not so cool is if YouTube and other newer forms of popular communications are used simply to build the authoritarian Obama cult (Organizing for America could be a 21st century "progressive youth" indoctrination system if folks turn the campaign efforts into heavy-handed state-building intolerance of political difference). Already, more and school boards and local municipalities are
changing street names and buildings after President Obama, so if somehow YouTube becomes the Obama administration's ministry of propanda (already happening with Google), this is not going to be healthy for the democracy. The fact that the Obama White House has been trying to work out a system to disable tracking cookies from YouTube page views gives some indication of the less benign planning that's going into this administration's YouTube presidency.