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Change Comes Quickly to the White House Web Site

January 21, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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To further President Barack Obama's pledge for more government transparency, the White House plans to use the Internet to communicate directly with citizens and expand technology's role in the presidency. Ray Suarez reports.
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JIM LEHRER: And now, Obama item number three, using the Internet to hear from and organize the public. Ray Suarez reports for our Media Unit.

RAY SUAREZ: In moments, change came, to the Web site that used to promote the Bush White House. With a few keystrokes, WhiteHouse.gov became President Obama’s new site. The site declares it’s backing up a campaign pledge to make this the most transparent and accountable administration in American history.

Communication, transparency and participation are the three priorities of the new media efforts, according to the site.

Thomas Gensemer is managing partner of Blue State Digital, the group hired before President Obama announced his race for the presidency to build the online site and strategy. Campaigning and governing may be different, but there will be plenty of chances to reach out to individual Americans online.

THOMAS GENSEMER, Blue State Digital: We won’t have the exponential growth the way we would in a campaign setting, again, because the milestones don’t provide themselves as clearly, but you can see how something around the State of the Union does engage people.

Anytime you tie in the offline efforts, that’s going to bring a lot of eyeballs, both to the television and online. The more you can complement the messages, you watch something on CNN, and you’re asked to do something that sort of feels in context with that, that inspires people to not only tell their friends, sort of — we always push for organic growth. You should have a reason to tell someone to join this program.

Internet reinvigorates activists

Bill Brothers
Obama Supporter
I feel like my little piece is a contribution, then, you know, I'm willing to devote more of my time. And I think a lot of people are; I'm not alone in that.

RAY SUAREZ: In addition to the makeover of the White House site, Obama announced this weekend the creation of Organizing for America, which will encourage and coordinate the kind of grassroots activism that fueled his campaign. It will be run in conjunction with the Democratic National Committee and is using the some 13 million names of people who became involved online during the campaign and raised some $500 million.

Here's what Obama said in his Saturday radio address, no longer meant to be heard on radio alone. It's recorded for digital video and audio downloads from YouTube and iTunes so people can listen whenever and whenever they want.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ... National Day of Service on Monday...

RAY SUAREZ: Monday, the new president talked about the Internet, not just as a tool in our campaign, but as a tool to help rebuild America.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Internet is an amazing tool for us to be able to organize people together. We saw that in our campaign. But we don't want to just use it for winning elections; we want to use it to rebuild America.

RAY SUAREZ: It was that kind of activism and community that drew many of these people to a recent house party in Virginia. These Obama supporters, who might have met online during the campaign, got together the old-fashioned way: in person.

OBAMA SUPPORTER: I'm very happy and appreciate Bill's hosting this, so we can continue, not stop what we've done, but continue and work for change.

RAY SUAREZ: At some 4,000 of these parties across the country after the election, the Obama transition team encouraged supporters to come together to talk policy. Supporters were eager to talk about how the Internet power used to fire up the Obama campaign can now translate into a wired White House.

BILL BROTHERS, Obama supporter: I think one of the things that, you know, Obama-Biden campaign did was let people know how important it was for them to participate.

And once I realized that -- again, I volunteered in other ways in my community, but never politically -- I feel like my little piece is a contribution, then, you know, I'm willing to devote more of my time. And I think a lot of people are; I'm not alone in that.

'Politics is personal'

Jose Antonio Vargas
The Washington Post
I think that's the lasting -- that's going to be the lasting legacy of this for other politicians who are going to run for president, that they can't just be about the kind of tried-and-true Washington way of running a campaign.

RAY SUAREZ: Jose Antonio Vargas covers the wired world for the Washington Post.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS, Washington Post: Throughout this campaign, I don't text with a lot of people, maybe six or seven. Obama was actually one of them, because I would get text messages from him, just because, you know, I was following the campaign. That's different; that's personal.

And when people say that politics is personal, remember that? Years ago, people have said that. Now I think it actually has become a reality, because you touch it. And I think that's the lasting -- that's going to be the lasting legacy of this for other politicians who are going to run for president, that they can't just be about the kind of tried-and-true Washington way of running a campaign. It's about, well, how are we going to involve all these people? How are we going to run a campaign to build a movement?

RAY SUAREZ: During the campaign, Obama officials often sent several e-mails a day to supporters, and the practice has continued since the November victory...

DAVID PLOUFFE, Obama campaign manager: It's been a while since I was able to talk to you like this...

RAY SUAREZ: ... with Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe sending missives to those who had signed up to hear from Team Obama.

DAVID PLOUFFE: So, once again, thank you for all your help during the election.

Timing for online messages is key

Thomas Gensemer
Blue State Digital
On the political side, whether it be through the DNC or otherwise, you now have reinvigorated community organizations across the country and, quite frankly, across the world that are committed to seeing this administration succeed.

RAY SUAREZ: Among recent e-mails, "Watch video of Barack's announcement and learn about the national security team," "Learn more about the economic team," "Share your campaign experience and your thoughts on the best way to keep supporting our agenda for change."

THOMAS GENSEMER: The timeliness of an organization is really key. You know, if you're going to be in the news on something, that's when the best online -- that's when it works, when the timing is right, or you're doing things first online.

We're going to see different channels, different ways of empowering people on local levels. On the political side, whether it be through the DNC or otherwise, you now have reinvigorated community organizations across the country and, quite frankly, across the world that are committed to seeing this administration succeed.

OBAMA POLICY ANALYST: ... what happened in this campaign and bringing it inside of government...

Obama wants to keep Blackberry

Ron Stevens
Obama Supporter
This was a revolutionary kind of campaign. What they're trying to do is to maintain that sense of engagement, meaningful, substantive engagement, that so many people felt they had during the campaign itself.

RAY SUAREZ: The transition team has posted video of policy team meetings. And with an eye toward moving the entire government toward better use of digital technology, the new administration is expected to name a chief technology officer, a newly created position, in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, they're throwing out ideas for new uses of the Internet, including connecting supporters to various forms of service and activism in their own communities.

One recent example: the Obama Web site raised money for the victims of the Southern California fires.

Some who logged on during the campaign now have high hopes for continuing the connection.

RON STEVENS, Obama supporter: This was a revolutionary kind of campaign. What they're trying to do is to maintain that sense of engagement, meaningful, substantive engagement, that so many people felt they had during the campaign itself.

RAY SUAREZ: The president and his top aides regularly communicate by BlackBerry. And despite legal and privacy concerns, President Obama himself said in a weekend interview he may opt to keep his personal BlackBerry after all.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What this does -- and it's just one tool among a number of tools that I'm trying to use to break out of the bubble, to make sure that people can still reach me, that if I'm doing something stupid, somebody in Chicago can send me an e-mail and say, "What are you doing?" You know? Or, "You seem detached," or, "You're not listening to what is going on here in the neighborhood."

I want to be able to have voices other than the people who are immediately working for me to be able to reach out and send me a message about what's happening in America.

RAY SUAREZ: Obama says he'll keep in mind anything he writes could become public.