Politics & Government

How will President Obama deploy his Internet army?

The grassroots cheer in Grant Park, Ill. as Obama's win is announced.
The grassroots cheer in Grant Park, Ill. as Obama's win is announced. Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune / MCT

WASHINGTON — A powerful new lobbying force is coming to town: Barack Obama's triumphant army of 3.1 million Internet-linked donors and volunteers.

In a mass e-mail thanking them, written moments before his Grant Park victory speech, Obama put them on notice. "We have a lot to do to get our country back on track, and I'll be in touch soon about what comes next," he wrote.

Many are eager. "I'm going to be sitting at the phone, asking, 'What do you want me to do next? I'm ready,' " said volunteer Courtney Hood, 37, a mother of three from Owings, Md.

How Obama will use his ardent laptop-armed cadres is unclear. So is the extent to which they'll rally behind his priorities, press him for their own or both.

Joe Trippi, the Internet politics guru whose computer geeks made Howard Dean a contender in 2004 and who went on to design Obama's socially networked campaign machine, offers a provocative and educated guess.

Trippi predicted that Obama would use his forces, first and foremost, to intimidate congressional foes of his agenda, rally his allies and forge "one of the most powerful presidencies in American history."

Certainly, Obama reaches the White House with the biggest, best organized, fastest-acting grass-roots army in the history of presidential campaigning.

Moreover, because his Internet operation was miles ahead of Republican John McCain's, Obama's liberal-to-libertarian electronic activists are in a position to dominate the new political medium much as conservative Republicans dominate talk radio.

As for political utility, many thousands of volunteers such as Hood will be deployable within hours, with great precision and at almost no cost, thanks to the campaign's state-of-the-art information-management systems.

The president-elect's political operatives know, for example, the ZIP codes and hence the congressional districts of each of Obama's million most active campaigners, those who volunteered via his Web site mybarackobama.com. It's a social network that the campaign set up to communicate needs, events and assignments to volunteers.

The profiles that Obama campaigners submitted to the site also reveal which supporters in each district are environmentalists, concerned about health care or keen on government reform.

Moreover, because the so-called "MyBO" site quantified volunteers' participation and fundraising totals digitally, there's a numeric score for each participant's success. It's even adjusted to give more credit for recent help.

"We really know who Obama's community leaders are," issue by issue, said Thomas Gensemer, the managing director of Blue State Digital, the Washington-based mobilizer of online communities created by four Dean campaign veterans.

Instead of e-mailing members of Congress, Gensemer continued, Obama's most effective supporters will meet with them in their district offices and press them at local town hall meetings.

Trippi offered a more dramatic scenario: "Obama will be able to say these are the 10 members of Congress standing in our way on health care. Basically, it'll be the president and the people united, with some members of Congress in between, which won't be a very comfortable place to be."

A million Obama activists nationwide translate to an average of nearly 2,300 for each of 435 congressional districts. "And if someone in my district had a list of them with e-mail addresses and a lot of good will, I'd pay a lot of attention to them," said Scott Lilly, a senior staffer for Democrats in the House of Representatives for nearly 30 years.

One question, Lilly continued, is whether Obama's activists are concentrated in liberal urban Democratic districts, where Obama needs no help, and not much of a presence in conservative ones, where resistance is most likely.

For example, Lilly wondered how numerous Obama supporters are in, say, Panama City, Fla. It's a hub of Florida's 2nd Congressional District, in the state's conservative Panhandle and represented by Allen Boyd, a Blue Dog Democrat.

Asked that question in late October, Alvin Peters, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Bay County, which includes Panama City, responded with shock and awe: "I've never seen so much political energy in this district ever," he said. "It's 10 to 20 times more than Kerry — maybe 1,400 in little Panama City alone — and it's all local!"

That's great news for Obama, whose legislative fate may depend most on his ability to persuade conservative Democrats.

What his supporters will accomplish in Republican districts is another uncertainty.

"If they're networked into PTA meetings and barbershops and call-in talk shows, they can let people know that their guy isn't doing what we want him to do. That could be an extraordinarily powerful tool," Lilly said.

He and others presume that Obama will pass on his activist database to the Democratic National Committee and/or a new nonprofit that takes direction from the Obama White House. That's permitted under MyBO's privacy policy, which says that its names and data may be turned over to "organizations with similar political viewpoints and objectives, in furtherance of our own political objectives."

The Federal Election Commission is unlikely to step in, said Washington lawyer Jan Baran, who's a specialist on federal election law, ethics and lobbying. "The FEC has generally laid off regulating Internet-based activity by political organizations and individuals," Baran said.

Reform advocates who see the Internet as a tool want to reduce Washington's grip on power by providing universal Internet access to more government deliberations and records. It's an idea that appeals to lots of Obama activists, who can be expected to push for it.

Obama has promised to create a "transparent and connected White House." He's also promised to appoint a Cabinet-rank chief technology officer to promote openness in federal agencies and help the new president communicate with the electorate. More generally, Obama supports expanding high-speed broadband Internet access, which roughly half the nation lacks.

An easy and popular step toward transparency would be for Obama to reverse the Bush administration's secretive policy on Freedom of Information Act requests for government records. That could be done by declaration, without congressional involvement, noted John Wonderlich, the program director of the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency.

Visionaries in the realm of Internet politics, several of them well-known among Obama activists, would like to see Obama go further and use Internet social networks for ideas and collaborative problem-solving.


How Obama Really Did It, Technology Review (registration required)


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