Obama still uses a BlackBerry? Here’s why presidents always fall behind the times.

September 24, 2013
(Tracy A Woodward/The Washington Post)
(Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

BlackBerry announced last week that it was laying off 40 percent of its workforce, the latest sign that the platform is in terminal decline. That's bad news for the platform's most prominent user, Barack Obama. The White House declined to comment on Obama's current communications device, but photo evidence suggests he was still using a BlackBerry as recently as December of 2012.

Obama's BlackBerry dependency was touted as a sign of modernity before his 2009 inauguration, to the point where it was a news story that he was allowed to keep the device post-inauguration. But technology that seemed cutting-edge in 2008 now seems painfully anachronistic. Obama was reportedly "befuddled" during an attempt to call a volunteer from an iPhone during the 2012 campaign.

Obama isn't the first president to fall behind rapidly during his time in office. During Bill Clinton's time in office, the Internet went from an obscure academic research project to a mainstream communication tool. Yet Clinton himself barely used the Internet. He sent a grand total of two e-mails during his presidency — one to troops in the Adriatic, and one to then-77-year-old outer space resident John Glenn. And he participated in a live Webcast video townhall co-hosted by Excite in the fall of 1999. But he had to wait until he left office to really engage with the online world.

President George W. Bush was reportedly a regular e-mail user before taking office, but sent his online friends a digital farewell note shortly before his inauguration. "My lawyers tell me that all correspondence by e-mail is subject to open record requests," he reportedly wrote in an e-mail on Jan. 18, 2001. "Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you."

But while Bush was relatively Internet-savvy at the time he took office, he fell behind  during his eight years in office. In a 2006 television interview, he referred to "the Google" and couldn't remember the name of Google's mapping product (known as Google Maps).

There are some legitimate security and legal constraints that make it hard for presidents to use the digital services in the same way as the average Joe. A smartphone is essentially a personal tracking device, and the Secret Service has reportedly been concerned about issues relating to geolocation since the '80s, when protectees were forbidden from wearing pagers.

But there's also the matter of time. Even if there weren't national security implications for the president having a GPS-enabled smartphone or leaving a large digital footprint on the Web, being the leader of the free world is a busy job. Time is a valuable commodity. So while you and I might be willing to spend half an hour learning how to do something online, it makes more sense for the president to delegate that task to someone else.

The post-presidential digital adventures of Bush and Clinton suggest  that once free of the restrictions of their office, presidents catch up with technology pretty quickly. As unfortunate as the Bush family e-mail hackings were, they showed that he returned to his e-mail habit in force.

As for Bill Clinton, he is now an enthusiastic user of Twitter. Today he even made a "two girls, one cup" joke. That may reflect terrible judgment on his part, but the man is pretty tech-savvy for a 67-year-old.

Do not Google the Two Girls, One cup video this Tweet is referencing. (Twitter)
Do not Google the "two girls, one cup" video this Tweet is referencing. (Twitter)
Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
SECTION: {section=business/technology, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=business/technology, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=2, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Timothy B. Lee · September 24, 2013