A profile of President Barack Obama that appeared today in the Washington Post, as part of a retrospective of his first year in office, raises some interesting questions about what kind of man he is, and how he might differ from his predecessors. Among other things, the story includes the rather staggering fact that he is the first U.S. President to have Internet access at his desk, and the first to converse regularly via e-mail (his much-reported dedication to his BlackBerry was one of the first hurdles the new administration had to clear).
And what does President Obama do with that connection to the Internet? A White House source told the Post he is online “constantly,” and searches out “offbeat blogs and news stories, tracking down firsthand reporting and seeking out writers with opinions about his policies.” The President was apparently particularly interested in Atlantic Online blogger Andrew Sullivan’s tweeting of the Iranian elections last year.
White House staff took pains to note that President Obama reads a lot of magazines (including The New Yorker, The Economist, Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone) and watches television. But he also regularly communicates directly with those he wants to contact — without having to go through his chief of staff — and often emails aides late at night from his BlackBerry, with questions or comments.
Joshua Michele Ross at O’Reilly Radar says that Roosevelt was the radio president, Kennedy was the TV president, and Barack Obama is clearly “the Internet president.” Radio and TV are broadcast media — one-way, centralized and autocratic in some sense. The Internet and the web, of course, are multidirectional and distributed, with a multitude of voices (speaking of broadcasting, President Obama’s first State of the Union address is on Wednesday, and Janko over at NewTeeVee has a list of places you can watch it online).
So what does it mean to have a U.S. president who is comfortable (or even familiar) with that new multi-directional, distributed reality, who seeks out his own sources of information wherever they might be, and makes connections directly and in real time, rather than always waiting for a report to be delivered or for a chief of staff to smooth the way?
Among the things you get, obviously, are appointments like Julius Genachowski to head the FCC, and former Google manager Katie Stanton as director of citizen participation, as well as tools like the Citizen’s Briefing Book and Change.gov (although both were wrapped up after President Obama took office). But what are the larger implications for the Obama years? Is a real-time connected president more likely to think for himself and look outside the usual Washington circles for ideas or input, or is being connected just a giant distraction for someone who is supposed to be leading the nation?
Food for thought. Feel free to share yours in the comments.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of the official White House Flickr photostream