TOPICS > Politics

Wired White House Looks to Harness New Media

March 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As part of a look at how both political parties are connecting with constituents on the Web, Ray Suarez reports on how Democrats are harnessing new media following President Obama's successful presidential campaign on the Web.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now: political battles being waged online.

In the coming weeks, we will look at how both parties are harnessing the power of new media.

Tonight, Ray Suarez starts with the Democrats.

PROTESTER: Health care!

RAY SUAREZ: Sure, the recent battles over health care reform featured demonstrations on both sides of the issue…

PROTESTER: This is the most extreme lack of transparency.

RAY SUAREZ: … and campaign-style appearances by the president.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I got all my Republican colleagues out there saying, well, no, no, no. We want to focus on things like cost.

You — you had 10 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Dueling news conferences.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, house majority leader: And the American people would never accept some trickery to try to make this bill become law.

RAY SUAREZ: But that’s old politics. Now, away from the rah-rah and TV lights are the modern-day Web wars. This White House and its opponents have a new political arsenal at their disposal.

Whatever the challenges of a tumultuous first year, the Obama administration and its political operation at the Democratic National Committee have taken new and social media to a new level of sophistication.

At work in the Old Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House, is a new kind of communications team.

MACON PHILLIPS, director of new media, The White House: During the event, we’re going to use this widget that Twitter offers to do updates.

RAY SUAREZ: On the White House Web site, White House.gov, these young staffers are trying to display more of what the president and the White House do every day to the public.

MACON PHILLIPS: I wake up every morning trying to understand what the new tools are and reconciling them to the larger strategic communications goals and engagement goals of this White House.

RAY SUAREZ: With new media at more and more fingertips, with the old news business fighting to hold audiences, this robust online operation is part public service idealism, part political practicality.

Macon Phillips is director of new media for the White House.

MACON PHILLIPS: I think we are doing some things that are pretty revolutionary. In many organizations, you sort of find the new media folks or the Web folks in a little box down the hall working on the Web site and sort of other gadgets and gizmos.

New media and the use of technology is something that is baked into everything that we do.

RAY SUAREZ: Natalie Foster is Phillips’s counterpart, managing new media for the Democratic National Committee, the political wing of the White House operation.

NATALIE FOSTER, director of new media, Democratic National Committee: There are millions of support are supporters for over a year now have been engaging Congress at every level, online and offline, urging them to pass real, meaningful health reform.

We have been encouraging folks to call talk radio. So, we have — a tool — there actually was no tool that allowed you to quickly and easily see what talk radio programs were on the air, see what they were discussing, and have the phone number at your fingertips.

RAY SUAREZ: And there’s this Web site, Why We’re Fighting, where people can commit their own words and photos to a Web site, and have constituents in every congressional district send that Web site straight to their own representative.

BARACK OBAMA: And we will just go back and forth.

RAY SUAREZ: Recently, the White House streamed live video of the daylong bipartisan congressional health care forum with the president. There were blogs and podcasts, too, even a White House iPhone app.

MAN: Next, we have a video question from Harriet in Georgia.

RAY SUAREZ: At an open-questions session, 100,000 members of the public submitted questions, and 3.5 million online votes were cast in response to the question of what mattered most to voters. The president then answered the top questions live from the East Room.

BARACK OBAMA: Thanks for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: And YouTube asked its audience what it wanted to know from the president.

MAN: Mr. President, my name is Frederick from South Florida. I have a question about your HAMP program and why the banks are reluctant to modify loans.

RAY SUAREZ: On any given day, the White House operation posts streaming video of events, and also creates its own video stories, on this day about the first lady’s campaign against childhood obesity.

MAN: Every open forum, public forum he does accessible 24/7 on the demand for users around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: There are sites like Serve.gov, where people can tell others about volunteer opportunities or offer their help to others, or White House.gov/open, a site where the public can submit ideas to the White House and vote on others, and the Reality Check Web site, critical to a White House with declining poll numbers. On that site, White House staffers fact-check what they see as myths and misconceptions.

The Huffington Post’s Jose Antonio Vargas, a longtime writer about the intersection of politics and new media, says the White House must play in this digital space in order to tamp down torrents of negative messages. Despite some bold new initiatives, he says, the White House effort falls short.

JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS, The Huffington Post: The White House press operation is still a largely traditional, largely, in many ways, 20th century operation, even though they do have these new technologists. People always say, this is the Wild, Wild West of this, right?

Of course there are risks involved. But I think people need to feel, especially the people that he had inspired, the people that joined this movement during the campaign, they need to feel as if he is talking directly at them and to them. And I think using these new media tools is the way to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs admits, as a newly minted tweeter, he is a bit late to the game. But, with over 40,000 followers, he says he understands why new media and social media are crucial to a modern White House.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: You can get an understanding from my perspective of what a reporter is hearing, what are they working on, what are they reporting. You can follow news stories. You get tips from people, comments.

BARACK OBAMA: Last year, obviously, was one of the toughest years we have had on record.

RAY SUAREZ: The White House has been criticized for not opening up more health care reform negotiations to C-SPAN cameras, as promised. But this is the first administration in history to open up the logs of who has visited the White House, the type of transparency the president promised in the campaign.

Micah Sifry is editor of TechPresident.com, a cross-partisan group blog that covers how politicians are using the Web and how voters are using the Web to influence politics.

MICAH SIFRY, editor, TechPresident.com: had to modernize their infrastructure and completely redesign the White House Web site. They now have a very active blog. And, every day, you see a lot of activity on the site. It’s become a very vibrant hub for information about what the White House is doing.

RAY SUAREZ: And Sifry says a true mind-set change is needed.

MICAH SIFRY: It’s 2010, and 90 percent of Americans are wired in some way. And the White House is still using the bully pulpit as if we’re in the television age and it’s 1996.

The Internet is here. It’s not going away. And it’s time to reimagine the bully pulpit, in the digital age, as not just a place that you put your speech, put your statement, your press conference online, and just broadcast through the Internet, but that you use the dynamic, interactive, two-way nature of online media.

RAY SUAREZ: For example, he says the White House should consider something of a modern-day version of FDR’s fireside chat, having the president talk directly to citizens who have written some of the 10 letters he looks over every night, with a video camera capturing the two-way dialogue.

And, for his part, Robert Gibbs says this administration is open to new approaches, but without ruling out traditional media either.

ROBERT GIBBS: I don’t know whether the phasing new media, old media, because I think the truth is we’re — in our everyday lives, we’re probably attached using all different sorts of mediums.

And I think that is why it is important to have an additional White House voice in those mediums. You may get — you may watch the evening news. You may get a lot of your other news from — from the Internet and a computer. You may get it off your BlackBerry.

RAY SUAREZ: Back at the DNC, they say they, along with the White House team, are pushing the digital envelope as much as possible. In fact, the DNC is looking to fill the position of social networks manager to maintain the president’s accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a future report, we will look at how the Republicans are making use of the Internet.