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Under Obama, Web Would Be the Way

By Shailagh Murray and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 10, 2008; A02

CHICAGO -- Armed with millions of e-mail addresses and a political operation that harnessed the Internet like no campaign before it, Barack Obama will enter the White House with the opportunity to create the first truly "wired" presidency.

Obama aides and allies are preparing a major expansion of the White House communications operation, enabling them to reach out directly to the supporters they have collected over 21 months without having to go through the mainstream media.

Just as John F. Kennedy mastered television as a medium for taking his message to the public, Obama is poised to transform the art of political communication once again, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who first helped integrate the Internet into campaigning four years ago.

"He's going to be the first president to be connected in this way, directly, with millions of Americans," Trippi said.

The nucleus of that effort is an e-mail database of more than 10 million supporters. The list is considered so valuable that the Obama camp briefly offered it as collateral during a cash-flow crunch late in the campaign, though it wound up never needing the loan, senior aides said. At least 3.1 million people on the list donated money to Obama.

Millions more made up the volunteer corps that organized his enormous rallies, registered millions of voters and held countless gatherings to plug the senator to friends and neighbors. On Election Day, they served as the backbone of Obama's get-out-the-vote operation, reaching voters by phone and at the front door, serving coffee at polling stations and babysitting so parents could stand in line at voting precincts.

After Obama declared victory, his campaign sent a text message announcing that his supporters hadn't heard the last from the president-elect. Obama conveyed a similar message to his staff in a campaignwide conference call Wednesday, signaling that his election was the beginning, and not the culmination, of a political movement.

Accordingly, the president-elect's http://www.change.gov transition Web site features a blog and a suggestion form, signaling the kinds of direct and instantaneous interaction that the Obama administration will encourage, perhaps with an eye toward turning its following into the biggest special-interest group in Washington.

Once Obama is sworn in, those backers may be summoned to push reluctant members of Congress to support legislation, to offer feedback on initiatives and to enlist in administration-supported causes in local communities. Obama would also be positioned to ask his supporters to back his favored candidates with fundraising and turnout support in the 2010 midterm elections.

"There's this network of people now," said Martha Page, a neighborhood leader in Warren County, outside Cincinnati, where Obama managed to reduce a traditionally large Republican vote margin. Page received six calls Wednesday from volunteers looking for new assignments. "It's a sea change," she said.

People in technology circles have been musing for months about how Obama would use his list, said Peter Daou, who oversaw Internet operations for the Senate campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). "Once you have people connected through a network, you can't disconnect. It's like unbreaking an egg. People all across the country have formed these groups to support Obama. They've worked together for a successful purpose," Daou said. "You don't let go of that easily."

But Daou noted that the initiative could have a downside. Obama faced an intense backlash when he broke from the left on the issue of immunity for telecommunications companies that took part in the warrantless wiretapping program. "People who have helped you reach this historic goal by self-organizing can also organize in opposition to your policies," he said.

As part of the presidential transition, Obama officials are looking to add a significant "new media" component to the White House communications operation. The campaign employed 95 people in its Internet operation, building a user-friendly Web site that served as a platform for grass-roots activities and distributed statements, policy positions and footage of Obama events. The White House Web operation will follow a similar but probably more ambitious path, transition officials said.

The process is just beginning, and many questions remain unanswered. The simplest approach might be to convert the campaign organization into an incarnation aimed at 2012 and an anticipated run for reelection, but some inside the Obama team are concerned about appearing too overtly political. Another course could be to create a nonprofit organization. Obama officials said all options would be examined over the coming weeks.

Over the course of the campaign, Obama's e-mail list gathered not only names and contact information, but also details about issues important to those supporters.

In past years, such lists were considered useful tools for political campaigns but not particularly helpful for governing. But Peter Greenberger, manager of political advertising for Google, said such information could be a boon for Obama in building public support for policy proposals.

The White House could "geo-target" ads so they appear online in congressional districts where members remain undecided. Obama could use Internet ads to solicit signatures for petitions, or he could place display and video ads contextually -- so they would appear on the screen next to news coverage of his proposals.

"If there's an article in the New York Times or The Washington Post about health-care legislation," Greenberger said, "the administration or a pro-Obama advocacy organization could run an ad right alongside it."

Republicans have also seen the potential value in organizing online. In recent days, a small group of prominent young Republicans launched a Web site, http://www.rebuildtheparty.com, calling on their party's next chairman to use the Internet to organize and galvanize their grass roots.

"Online organizing is by far the most efficient way to transform our party structures to be able to compete against what is likely to be a $1 billion Obama re-election campaign in 2012," the Web site says.

Staff writer Alec MacGillis in Washington contributed to this report.

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