Coming soon to a computer or cell phone near you! The Wired White House!
Barack Obama will follow the same strategy that won the election to govern country: Use the Internet to conduct an interactive conversation with voters and make them feel they own a stake in his success. A quick glance at his new Web site, change.gov, reveals how this works. The word "your" appears a dozen times on the home page, as in this headline: "It's Your America: Share Your Ideas." The word "my" doesn't appear at all.
This is partly a PR stunt. Obama's Treasury secretary won't spend much time sifting through e-mails, looking for solutions to the fiscal crisis. But if Obama can harness the energy and excitement that supported his candidacy to strengthen his presidency, he might actually change the way that Washington does business.
"Once you have people connected through a network, you can't disconnect," Peter Daou, an Internet strategist for Hillary Clinton, told the Washington Post. "It's like unbreaking an egg. People all across the country have formed groups to support Obama. They've worked together for a successful purpose. You don't let go of that easily."
Al Gore was undoubtedly right when he said recently that Obama's victory "couldn't have happened without the Internet." More than 3 million donors gave money online, and those funds helped the Democrat overwhelm Republican John McCain with over-the-air advertising and on-the-ground organizing.
More importantly, those contributors changed the way they thought about elections — and themselves. They turned from passive recipients of information to active participants in politics. Each one became a potential organizer, broadcaster and fundraiser.
The impact of this strategy is pretty clear: in battleground states, the Obama camp contacted half of all voters; 1-in-10 voters in those states were first-timers; young people voted two to one for Obama.
His team understood that intensity matters. Election eve polls showed that 7-of-10 Obama supporters were enthusiastic about their choice, but only 4-in-10 McCain backers felt that way. The Web helped expand that devotion, and exploit it at the polls.
So how will Obama shift from campaigning to governing? One obvious way is using the Internet to send information directly to his supporters, avoiding the filter of journalists, commentators and critics. Already his Web site provides links to key videos, such as his press conference on the economy, but that's only the beginning.
Since the Obama campaign produced more than 1,800 videos — that were watched for 14.5 million hours on You Tube — expect a daily dose of updates, framed to enhance the White House viewpoint. Visitors to change.gov are urged to use it as "your source" for information about the Administration. And BTW, goes the implication, don't bother with all those other sources that don't share our "vision."
A second critical use of the Internet will be promoting Obama's legislative agenda. He has 10 million e-mail addresses and countless cell phone numbers in the bank and ready to go. Just imagine the first fight over a Supreme Court nominee that Republican senators are trying to block. Think what pressure could be brought to bear, almost instantly, on lawmakers from states that Obama won — say George Voinovich of Ohio, or Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
Grassroots organizing is hardly new, smart lobbyists have been using the tactic for years, but technology can vastly expand its impact. "If a congressman goes home and sees a town hall meeting with 1,000 people in their districts, that matters," Thomas Gensemer of Blue State Digital told Slate.
A third use of the Web will be political. Obama will start his re-election campaign immediately, and as he employs technology to inform and energize supporters, he will continue to expand his database. The more you use the Internet, the more powerful a tool it becomes.
There is a downside here. Campaigning focuses on one clear, unifying goal — election. Governing is a lot messier, and when Obama starts making compromises to get legislation through — on taxes, say, or Iraq funding — some disenchantment will be inevitable. And his supporters will have a readymade online channel to voice their dismay.
Obama does not own the Internet. Interest groups of all kinds — from environmentalists to right-to-lifers — can use the same networks to trigger pressure and dissent. And as Obama learned during the campaign, damaging rumors can swirl through cyberspace at warp speed.
Obama re-wrote the rules of campaigning. Re-writing the rules of governing will be much harder. But we're about to see him try.
Cokie Roberts' latest book is "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation" (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.