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You Mean We Can Talk Back?

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 4, 2008; 1:04 PM

Sometimes, the change is enough to make your head spin. This is one of those moments.

Here's the status quo: A president who has overt contempt for public opinion, who shields himself from opposing views and whose idea of White House Web site interactivity is a video of his dog.

And here's the change: The Obama transition team is actually soliciting public comments on its Web site, reading them and responding to them.

Change.gov last week asked members of the public: What worries you most about the healthcare system in our country? The site's users responded with 3,700 comments -- and were able to vote each others' comments up or down for good measure.

On Tuesday, former Sen. Tom Daschle, President-elect Barack Obama's point person on health care, posted a video response. "I spent a lot of the weekend actually reading the comments," he said. "And I have to tell you I'm extremely moved by a lot of the stories that you shared with us. We want to keep this a very open process. We want to make sure that you understand how important those comments and your contributions are. We really want to hear from you, and already have begun to follow through with some of the ideas." Daschle's video has now generated an additional 3,800 comments and counting.

And as of last night, there's a new question on the site: How is the current economic crisis affecting you?

There is, of course, much more Obama's team could be doing to bring transparency to the transition and, eventually, the White House. I recently wrote on NiemanWatchdog.org about ways a reconceived whitehouse.gov Web site could revolutionize the relationship between the public and the presidency, bring the policymaking process into the open, welcome opposing views and encourage accountability.

It's early yet. And it's entirely possible that Obama's team will simply use the Internet as a glorified marketing device. But what's happening on change.gov could be the beginning of a true national conversation.

An Experiment Begins

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post: "Barack Obama's incoming administration has begun to draw on the high-tech organizational tools that helped get him elected to lay the groundwork for an attempt to restructure the U.S. health-care system. . . .

"The health-care mobilization taking shape before Obama even takes office will include online videos, blogs and e-mail alerts as well as traditional public forums. . . .

"The Obama team chose to begin its high-tech grass-roots experiment on the issue of health care because 'every American is feeling the pressure of high health costs and lack of quality care, and we feel it's important to engage them in the process of reform,' said spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. . . .

"'The Obama administration has learned that listening may be even more important than talking, because it diffuses opposition,' said Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, a nonpartisan Web site focused on the intersection of politics and technology."


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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