Blog Post

What Are the Implications of a Real-Time, Connected President?

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 (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

12 Responses to “What Are the Implications of a Real-Time, Connected President?”

  1. James Morgan

    It certainly depends on how he uses it, unfortunately the web can be misleading and sometimes completely irrelevant. Stories and ideas are created and manipulated in several ways all the time, although when you look at the grand picture of society, it is undoubtable that we have become just about reliant on our technology and for many, the web is necessary for living. Having a real-time connected President is just another stepping stone in the building blocks of evolution, whether we like it or not, we are moving towards a web-based generation which will create whole new ways of living and adapting in society. There is always a good and evil behind something, and a complete distraction is very possible, sometimes it just get’s too addicting to know who’s commented on your post, hopefully Obama doesn’t become engulfed by some popular web like Twitter. Honestly, I think it would be hilarious if he created his own Facebook page, and auto-accepted friend requests.. It would be interesting to see how many millions of photos/tags/posts would end up on his page.

  2. Quite honestly, we’re not going to have a good sense of the implications here until the historians get to go through Obama’s papers (online and off).

    What the press, regardless of where the press is, is told is always open to debate.

    I think it’s great if true though.

  3. The Internet is like any tool with the potential to help enormously if used correctly and the potential to greatly hinder if used incorrectly. The problem is that it can be difficult to tell.

    While you might be right that this allows him to get ideas from outside the circle; but I hope it isnt distracting him from that eyes only report of Afghanistan or the latest confidential summary of what the banks are doing with the bail-out billions.

  4. @Mike W, the point is getting rid of the staff filter. That’s at least a two-edged sword, as anybody connected to the Twitterverse can attest; there will always be a gushing torrent of data, of views and opinion. Having a filter, of properly-equipped and -experienced people of good intent, makes the torrent manageable at the (widely known) cost of “smoothing the curve”, picking and choosing exactly which bits of information to kick upstairs (which is the entire point). Having any busy manager, let alone someone on the busy-ness level of President Obama, able to interact usefully and meaningfully with the raw, unfiltered world doesn’t take away the need for the “filters”; it exacerbates it. I’d bet he reads the reports and summaries, gets ideas of things to look at, and follows a (limited) number of quasi-random tangents from there. That’s the only way I can think of any manager being able to make use of “the Net”… else it becomes an unsustainable time sink that dangerously impacts his other time priorities.

  5. I would suggest it’s just a distraction for him. In general, a president should stay much more meta-level than what the internet-seekers receive. There’s simply too much information for a single person, or teams of people, or even super computers to process and observe intelligently. Specially if he’s looking for opinions. It’s quite useless to look at each individual opinion. Sure, get a feeling for a generality, but you need a computer to do that trustingly and efficiently.

  6. Mathew,

    Interesting post. This sure brings to mind the idea of you never know who you are speaking to with the anonymity of the internet.

    For all we know, Mr President could be reading this post and leaving a comment right after me using an alias just to see what kind of response he would get.

    It would certainly be a real time approach to getting feedback on his views or opinions. It’s not hard to consider that he is even a “ghost” blogger on some political blogs that float ideas for public consumption. Maybe he is even “REALLY” on Twitter…..


  7. While I won’t argue that Obama is most definitely more web savvy then Bush was I think calling him the first connected president is a bit of a reach. To assume that our presidents don’t have staff that tell them opinions and information gathered from the web is to assume that the web has had no impact on the modern world in which I believe we would all disagree.