Barack Obama's transition to power is getting enormous news coverage. Even the burning question of what kind of dog he will get for his two daughters is sparking widespread interest. But one important aspect of his leadership strategy has been largely ignored—the potential to use his vast army of supporters and donors to help him govern.
Obama and his aides are planning to greatly expand the White House communications operation so they can reach out directly to their political base in unprecedented fashion. As with his immediate predecessors, Obama believes he can make his case more effectively without the media middleman. It's not that Obama dislikes dealing with reporters or editors. To the contrary, according to Chicago confidant Jerry Kellman. He says Obama "believes in the media as a concept," as the institution protected by the First Amendment in order to serve as a watchdog on those in power. But Obama also believes that the media sometimes get lost in trivia and sensationalism and ignore serious discussion, so he wants to appeal directly to everyday people as much as he can.
To that end, Obama's campaign has amassed an E-mail database of more than 10 million supporters, which gives him an audience that surpasses that of most cable-television news shows. The most motivated of these are the more than 3 million people who donated money to him. "This is really the first time that a president can make retail appeals," says Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. "There's a personal tie to 10 million people that are on that list, and he can address them by their first names."
Research shows that such a personal approach is often the most effective. Baker predicted Obama would cause "the greatest revolution in presidential communication" since Ronald Reagan, a former actor, used direct appeals to the country and his Saturday radio addresses to energize his base and establish a bond with everyday Americans. Baker adds: "If you are looking for a 21st-century equivalent to what Franklin Roosevelt did in 1933, it probably is comparable to the fireside chats." In the Great Depression, families were hungry for reassurance and gathered around their radios to hear FDR. Now, individuals worried about the future can potentially get that reassurance on their computers directly from Obama.
Obama's path-breaking use of technology has been gaining momentum for many months. He announced the choice of Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate in a text message to supporters last summer. His campaign leaders regularly communicated with his backers via E-mail for both fundraising—a smashing success—and to explain how he was dealing with complex issues or controversies in the news.
On November 19, Obama illustrated the power of his online network yet again when his staff used his transition and campaign websites to post videos and information about efforts to help victims of wildfires in Southern California. State officials said it apparently caused a substantial jump in daily hits to a linked California site describing ways to help, www.californiavolunteers.org.
YouTube. On November 15, he delivered the Democrats' weekly radio address not just on radio but, for the first time, on video. He was taped as he recorded the radio remarks, and the video was posted on change.gov, Obama's transition website, and picked up by YouTube. Obama didn't make big news as he called for a "coordinated global response" to the financial crisis and immediate passage of a rescue package by Congress. But it was another sign of things to come. Jen Psaki, a transition spokeswoman, said this was "just one of many ways that he will communicate directly with the American people and make the White House and the political process more transparent."
Obama aides say his White House will conduct online question-and-answer sessions and post video interviews, both on the White House website and for use on YouTube. Obama will sometimes participate, as will his senior aides and perhaps his wife, Michelle. Obama says he will have a five-day online comment period before he signs nonemergency legislation. One can easily envision Obama using his network to pressure members of Congress to pass his agenda, to support or oppose candidates in the 2010 midterm elections, and to generate campaign contributions.