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Obama as Tech president: Leading the Way

Cherian Samuel is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 23, 2009

    Among the many monikers that Barack Obama has collected as he enters office is that of being the first "Tech President". In the days since his victory, Obama has already brought technology into his Presidency in a big way, starting with the launch of an online site, change.gov, where people could apply for jobs in his Administration and give suggestions on the agenda of his Administration. Other changes include the transformation of the traditional weekly radio address to a video address which can be viewed over video site Youtube, and a complete re-design of the White House website. The makeover of the website was more than cosmetic with the addition of a blog and many other elements designed to fulfil his promise of transparency and openness. While it still remains to be seen how this would work out in practice, one of his main objectives is to enable two-way communication between the president and his people. Obama would no doubt use the lessons learned from his election campaign to fashion his use of the Web as president. One early indicator of the effect of these changes can be seen in the sudden popularity of the weekly address which had over a million viewers on Youtube. His use of the Internet will certainly set a benchmark for other governments to follow.

    Obama understood and used the Internet as a multifarious platform to achieve a variety of goals throughout the presidential campaign. His use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace galvanized young Americans who mobilised in unprecedented numbers to work for his campaign. On the social networking site Facebook, for instance, he had over 3 million fans in contrast to his rival John McCain who had only 200,000. Viral marketing strategies were effectively used to get his supporters to pass on the message to others. The fragmentation of the media universe was countered through a multi-medial online presence ranging from the campaign website to dedicated pages on social networking sites that provided one stop access to anything to do with the campaign. As one commentator put it, he “used the Web to knock down rumours, deflect criticism, direct fire against his opponents, shape and retain his own campaign messages and knock down those of his primary and general election opponents.” He also utilized the Internet for collecting donations of over $500 million.

    Going into the presidency, Obama, by all indications intends to use the same means to carry forward his agenda for change which also includes a change in the pork-barrel way of conducting business in Washington. This might even have to take on the colours of a campaign since there is bound to be intense resistance and he would have to “literally go over the head of his fellow politicians and the media to reach, motivate and deploy his supporters” who can then pass on the message to others. Given the global reach of the Internet and his international popularity, this could extend into a global phenomenon. The Chinese government evidently had this fall-out in mind when it censored sections of his Inaugural Address even if there was no mention of China. In fact, all he said was “"those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent — know that you are on the wrong side of history." With the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests coming up, the Chinese are only too well aware of Obama’s oratorical prowess and its possible impact.

    While other governments have been more pro-active in transferring the business of government online (and suffered the consequences thereof as in the case of Estonia), for the US Government to turn to the Internet to ensure transparency and two-way communication would put increased pressure on other democratic governments to follow suit. The idea of the Internet as a tool of e-governance has been around even in India for quite some time, but lack of digital connectivity and illiteracy have come in the way of effective implementation. Similarly, while politicians have used tools such as short messaging service (sms) and online videos during election campaigns, social networking devices such as blogs are yet to be effectively utilized by Indian politicians or political parties. Nonetheless, with India’s online population rising at a rapid rate, this is a development they must pay attention to sooner rather than later.

    As for the United States, with the President showing the way, even those sections of society and polity that had previously shown resistance to embracing the online universe, such as the US military, are beginning to change their stance. Where the military had earlier clamped down on “milblogs” written by its personnel posted in Iraq, even senior officials are beginning to try their hand at blogging with a view to “help shape the public debate about national security policy by providing more information....” Evidently, a hallmark of the Obama Administration will be a more informed debate on issues that concern American citizens.

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