Politics & Government

Obama will use YouTube to reach out directly to voters

Barack Obama during the CNN/Youtube debate in Charleston, S.C., in July 2007.
Barack Obama during the CNN/Youtube debate in Charleston, S.C., in July 2007. Gerry Melendez / The State / MCT

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama will add a new media wrinkle Saturday to his weekly radio address: the first YouTube video version, to be posted on both his transition site and the popular Internet video site.

It's the first visible result of a major transition-team effort to make Obama's conversations with the electorate more direct. In addition, members and supporters of the White House media upgrade want more input opportunities for the public.

Many of the changes, if adopted, also would curb the power of a traditional but often unpopular middleman between presidents and the populace: the mainstream media.

Spokesman Nick Shapiro said the Obama transition team wasn't ready to discuss innovations in White House communications just yet. But the community that thinks about ways the Internet can advance politics and democracy is small, talkative and in close touch with Obama's analysts.

Alan Rosenblatt, who directs Internet activism efforts at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, predicts that Obama's future videos will break through radio's five-minute limit to become a communications form of their own.

Indeed, in a 2007 YouTube interview, Obama said he intended to use the medium for "fireside chats."

Whatever their length, said Rosenblatt, whose center was headed by John Podesta until Obama picked him as the head of his transition team, the videos will evade the editing of Obama's remarks by TV and print reporters and enable him to talk to the citizenry directly.

YouTube, which wasn't a factor in politics until 2006, proved a cheap, powerful and effective tool for Obama. It drew more than 110 million viewers for his 1,800 campaign-related videos.

Another proposal before the transition team is to give Obama's Internet audience a chance to question him directly, either as part of a traditional news conference or separately.

Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, and others envision an online voting system that enables Internet respondents to decide together what the most important questions are to ask the president.

A prototype of sorts went live this week at www.Obamacto.org. It's enabled thousands of respondents to vote on what the top priorities should be for a new position that Obama has created, chief technology officer.

(The leader late Friday, with more than 10,000 votes, was "ensure the Internet is widely accessible & network neutral," which Obama backs. Not so the second-ranked priority, repealing the USA PATRIOT Act.)

"If 10,000 people say they want Obama to answer a question, he's probably going to respond," said Rasiej, whose group seeks to use the Internet to enhance participation in government, promote its transparency and produce grass-roots political effects.

Whether Obama responds at a news conference or in a separate message to his Internet questioners, Rasiej said, they'd make news. And they'd usurp the power of traditional journalists to ask questions.

Also getting under way is a new team of official White House bloggers. One, prominent liberal blogger Michael Lux, joined the transition team this week.

He's expected to be joined by bloggers assigned to specific Obama initiatives, such as overhauling health care and conserving energy.

At the same time, McClatchy has learned that Obama's Internet army, which is in the course of moving from his campaign communications Web site to his transition site, www.change.gov, may be asked to move again in January.

It'll get at least two choices, said Thomas Gensemer, the managing director of Blue State Digital, the Washington-based social network builder that's designed and managed all of Obama's Internet platforms.

"One group will focus on the White House program," he said, meaning the policy and legislative details of health care, energy and transparency in government and so forth.

"Others will want to do ongoing campaigning for the Democratic Party," Gensemer continued, especially at the state level. A likely focus: state-level efforts to make voting easier by extending the hours that polls are open and promoting early and absentee voting.

"2010 is just around the corner," Gensemer said.


Obama's video address

Personal Democracy Forum


Obama's disciplined message springs several leaks

Caution: Obama won, but he didn't redraw the map

Obama's relationship with new Congress will be complicated

Related stories from McClatchy DC