President Barack Obama Masters the New Online Media

Obama joins Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, and Reagan in harnessing the media of his time.

By + More

By Mary Kate Cary, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

All presidents are a product of their time—and communicate using the media of their time. In the days before microphones and amplifiers, Abraham Lincoln spoke to small groups gathered on battlefields. He knew, however, that the rest of America would read his words in newspapers, and wrote his speeches not for the listening ear but for the reading eye. As a result, the power and clarity of his words survive—despite the lack of any video clips, podcasts, CDs, or DVDs of Lincoln delivering his speeches. Instead, we read them engraved in stone on monuments and courthouses.

President Franklin Roosevelt took advantage of Americans' new reliance on the radio to deliver his fireside chats. JFK mastered the televised debate—not many people could name a single rhetorical point he made against Richard Nixon, but they'll all tell you how great he looked that night. President Reagan was an expert at major televised addresses and so not only do we remember the memorable lines he spoke, we remember the visual setting in which he delivered them.

("These are the boys of Point du Hoc," as he gestured to the windswept veterans at the top of the cliffs of Normandy; "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," he bellowed at the Berlin Wall; "They slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God," he said of the Challenger crew from the solitude of the Oval Office.)

Similarly, Barack Obama has already mastered the new media. As soon as he was elected in November, he posted a message to his Twitter account: "We just made history ... All of this happened because of you." He's appointed a director of new media at the White House who posted a blog on the White House website by 12:01 p.m. on Inauguration Day. And while President Obama recently shut down his Facebook page, the fact that he has insisted on keeping his BlackBerry while in office speaks volumes not only about the times we live in but his approach to them.

He sees what we all see: young people relying on cellphones and laptops to get headlines from the news crawl and commentary from Jon Stewart; middle-aged suburbanites signing up for Facebook pages; soccer moms using Twitter to locate kids waiting for the carpool.

Gone are the days when folks would gather in the family room and tune in "democracy's big day." Now more of us catch it at our desks, in our classrooms, even on our iPhones than ever before. According to Akamai Technologies Inc., the Obama inauguration was the single-most-watched event in the history of Web video. Nearly 27 million people watched live streaming video on CNN.com Live. Many other news sites crashed due to high traffic; some were linked to Facebook, which reported "unprecedented" numbers of postings during the swearing-in.

The question is, with all this new media, how will President Obama's words be remembered? As a Twitter post? A Facebook page? A blog on the White House website? Sure, future history books will contain President Obama's speeches, but you can bet they'll also have entries from campaign blogs, his Facebook page, and his BlackBerry messages.

The future is here, and all I can say is: WFM! (For those of you older than Sasha and Malia, that's IM lingo for Works for Me!)

  • Read more from the Thomas Jefferson Street blog.