The Root: The First Internet President

Omar Wasow
Contributor to The Root
Wednesday, November 12, 2008; 12:00 PM

In an article for The Root, Omar Wasow writes: "Barack Obama is far more than the first black president; he is the first Internet president. Certainly, integrating the White House is the more historic accomplishment, but Obama's remarkable innovations in campaigning may have a longer-term impact. From this moment forward, ambitious candidates around the world will be trying to copy the successful, Web-based code of Obama's breakthrough campaign for change."

Wasow, a co-founder of and a PhD candidate at Harvard University, was online Wednesday, November 12 to discuss the Obama campaign's online strategies, how they were used to help mobilize voters and how they may be used in the Obama administration -- and by other politicians and activists.

A transcript follows.


Omar Wasow: Hey folks: I'm the author of the "First Internet President" article at The Root.


Omar Wasow: I'm now a grad student in African American studies and political science. Previously I helped launch


New York, NY: Dear Omar,

Using the web to help organize a political campaign seems like such a no-brainer at this point. Why do you think the other candidates were so ineffective? Would you attribute it to Barack's throng of young voters who were already comfortable with the net?

Omar Wasow: I agree that using the net seems obvious but we also are heavy internet users. For a lot of folks, the net is just news and email. That said, we'll never see a campaign for president again that doesn't copy much of the Obama campaign.


Singapore: Running the campaign using the internet as Mr Obama did was certainly a very effective strategy for widespread dissemination of his ideas and brand, but I don't think that was what made the difference. I really think that the media being in his corner was more influential. This election, I really saw the power of the press.

Omar Wasow: Singapore: certainly the media played a big role but the problem with your argument is that Obama was running way behind Clinton at the beginning yet was able to compete with her on fundraising. The internet was the key factor there, I think.


A Reader: As long as the people who are not "wired" are not discounted as being unworthy of consideration. I was at a meeting of social service organizations recently in a rural community and the manager of a state agency kept extolling the many benefits of her agency, but virtually all required online access. She couldn't seem to comprehend that low income people may not have home computers, may not have computer skills, and may not have access to coffee shops or libraries with computers for free or for rent. Her response was that they had better learn to use computers because otherwise they wouldn't have jobs.

There does seem to be a disconnect in the minds of some people that people wouldn't have access to technology. But, shelter and food may take all the resources a person or family has, and in rural communities there are fewer opportunities to gain training or access.

So, network away, but somehow we need to include the "unwired" too as we move into the future.

Omar Wasow: Part of what was impressive about the Obama campaign is that it married online and offline. Someone could volunteer at a local office or from home. I think the blending of tech and real world is important, too.


Dera Ismail Khan Pakistan: Tim Berners Lee, the designer of Internet, wanted it to be tariff-free and owner-free, but we see governments controlling it and the business community minting money in an invisible manner. Will the president-elect help common users of this facility the world over?

Omar Wasow: Certainly the Net is subject to many regulations and is even censored in many countries but I don't think profits are the issue, I think repressive governments are. I hope the Obama campaign lives up to their commitment to use the Net to increase transparency of government.


McComb, Miss.: I've been thinking about this web thing a long time also. This is going to be a revolutionary way for the President to get a concise knowledge of the bills that need to be passed. I've also had an idea for the Senate when it comes time to cast a vote, and that is why can't a senator, if he or she is not on the floor, cast their vote by calling or e-mailing it in to their clerks? That would make it possible for them to spend more time with their constituents back home with whom they would not have to run off and leave just to cast a vote. This would also free them up to carry out more of the people's business, what do you think?

Omar Wasow: I agree that elected officials should be able to vote remotely. It all seems very archaic to require in person votes. There is probably a non-technical reason for it that I'm not aware of.


Anonymous: I hope that this is not a way to circumvent the press. If he has all the names he needs to wage a campaign, what happens to people who don't have ready access to the web?

Omar Wasow: I suspect using the Net will definitely be a way to circumvent the press. The Net will allow President-elect Obama and future Presidents to speak directly to people online. That said, it's not so different from fireside chats and TV speeches Presidents give to try and speak directly to the American people.


Washington, DC: Do you think that the Obama team's new media strategies can harness the enthusiasm of the campaign and engage these new participants in creating the change that Obama hopes to implement? How do you think that this would work-- through making people feel connected to the president and invested in his success or through tasking people with specific grassroots activities?

Omar Wasow: I'm not sure how the net will be used to push for change but I have a few guesses. First, Obama will set up an organization to take over the fundraising aspects of his campaign and that org will support elected officials who support Obama's agenda. Also, I think the campaign will try to get people more engaged in their local communities by marrying online engagement with offline volunteering.


Omar Wasow: I have a question for y'all: did any of you volunteer for either campaign? What role did the Net play in your civic engagement?


NW, D.C.: I think there was growth on both sides. Certainly the candidate and his campaign maximized the internet, but I think the voter was also thirsting for more.

I've said it before. Obama beat McCain the same way he beat Clinton. He spoke to issues and had a level of detailed plans ready to speak to it. both Clinton and McCain literally did not know what hit them and their normal rhetoric was brushed aside for many. This was a election year for details and apparent intellect given the apparent challenges ahead.

Omar Wasow: I agree that Obama both maximized the Net and made a strong case for himself on issues and presentation. The offline organizing was critical, too. Clinton could have won if she'd campaigned in the caucuses more aggressively. Lastly, I think the Net rewards more mission-driven charismatic candidates. The pre-Net era of politics rewards safer candidates who don't necessarily inspire fervent supporters. Because the Net can turn passion into cash, a newer type of candidate is viable.


Bowie, MD: I remember Candidate Obama saying that he would create a cabinet level internet position. Will President-elect Obama make good on this or has he moved away from his earlier position?

Omar Wasow: There are rumors of Obama appointing a "CTO" or Chief Technology Officer. I think it's a good bet that this will happen. What it means in practical terms, I'm not sure. Will the bureaucracy be reorganized in some way to create a reporting structure into this position? Will this person create new initiatives primarily or try to streamline old, low-tech government domains? It's still an open question, I think. I'm sure there's a position paper somewhere, though, so maybe I'll do some more homework.


Anywhere, USA: An internet presidency sounds great, but please don't spam me. I wouldn't mind getting links for more information on gov't initiatives or to post comments to the WH or agencies.

Omar Wasow: Agreed that this President-elect and future Presidents will need to strike a balance. It's probably good if Obama creates stronger ties between citizens and their elected officials. It might be problematic if the government is intruding into civil society in ways that crowd out other local initiatives.


USA: Someone needs to write the software to analyze emailed comments, provide key questions, graph response data, link to more detailed information the President is receiving in briefings, and find a way that innovative suggestions truly get through to decisionmaker consideration.

On the output side some of us old-time activists are waiting for the first sit-in, the first boycott, and the first demonstration against corporate and financial system reform. Community organizers never forget the basic skill set; but they are best utilized with the element of surprise.

Omar Wasow: It'll be interesting to see if President-elect Obama uses the Net as a kind of online poll or focus-group to see how people are responding to different policies.

Well there are already lots of examples of protests that have been largely coordinated online or with mobile devices. The "Battle in Seattle" as I understand it was heavily organized online. The protests at the 2004 Dem and Repub conventions were heavily coordinated through text messaging. This also happens abroad, for example with the Zapatista movement in Mexico.


Online: At least the Obama group has some vision on what to do with their list. The McCain group lacked vision all the way through the campaign which is partially why they lost. Poor Senator McCain does not know how to use a computer. This must have rubbed off and is a good sign that he (McCain) and the campaign were dated and behind the times.

Omar Wasow: I suspect you're right that the tech-savvy of the leader plays a key role in the organizational priorities. It also matters who the leader can recruit. Obama was able to inspire a co-founder of Facebook to join his team. I haven't heard equivalent stories of people who can build leading-edge tech having supported the McCain team. That said, in 2012, it won't matter as much, I suspect, as people now have a template from which to copy.

A slightly different question is will there be new technology driven sources of comparative advantage that will allow upstart candidates to be competitive? Certainly there will be new innovations but will they be more incremental or game changing?


Bowie, MD: While Pres Elect Obama has maximized the use of the internet, I think the current DNC Chairman (former VT Gov. Howard Dean)should be credited with being the first candidate to embrace using the internet as a strategy. I'd also like to point out that it was Gov. Dean also pushed the 50 state strategy that got Pres. Elect Obama elected.

Omar Wasow: Dean deserves a lot of credit but he didn't win. The key question I was trying to ask is why Obama and not Dean? I think part of the answer is that Obama 1. harnessed tech even more than Dean to raise money and mobilize people, 2. translated online activism to offline volunteering, 3. shifted from online niche to mass appeal. Dean didn't nail all of that and it cost him the primary.


Upstate, NY: I did volunteer for Obama's campaign. I was able to sign up online and then got followup up e-mails and telephone calls to make sure I knew where to go, at what times, etc. It was very easy to do.

I know several people who made phone calls using Obama's site to get lists and they all said it was easy to do as well. I think Obama did an excellent job of reaching out and engaging volunteers.

Omar Wasow: Upstate: Thanks for those examples. I agree that the Obama campaign really pushed the limits of "one-click volunteering." Making civic engagement as easy as buying a book on Amazon.


The Youth Vote: I think this issue is more profound than it appears. The massive youth vote is directly linked to the internet initiative of the Obama campaign. What was recognized is that amongst this group who were previously disenfranchised by apathy there existed a strong experience of what you might call an alternative democracy, where they voted on for maybe a Pop Idol or in a Big Brother eviction. Where is the connection? Well, an individual making a choice and having it registered and seeing the outcome. The irony is the process actually costs the voter money in a text message, so it should not have been surprising that the same group was willing to send their small donations on line to the campaign. How is this process to be carried forward, well perhaps a on-line voting facility for 2012, if we can bank, shop and blog on line what is the problem with voting in security online? The other area will be dissemination of information and canvassing feedback and views. Of course all cannot be actioned and feedback become restraining, but as a overview I am sure it would a positive. The information age has been visited upon us, certain sectors of society have already hooked into it, perhaps politicians can now see the positive value and the public can replace cynicism with involvement.

Omar Wasow: I agree that the youth vote was much more engaged because of Obama's tech strategy. Of course, Obama's message, style and unique characteristics as a candidate mattered enormously, too. I would like to see online voting as well but only as one of many ways to make voting easier (i.e. mail in voting, early voting, etc.)


Omar Wasow: If you're curious to read more about the intersection of tech and the presidency, a good site is:

Also, see this recent article by Frank Davies in the San Jose Mercury News:


Bowie, MD: I hope Pres. Elect Obama sees the internet for what it is... a tool. It should not be for polling or gauging the "temperature of the population" as only a certain percentage of the population has computers and only a certain number of them use the internet on a regular basis. It would be a big mistake to do this. I think it would be better used as a distribution network of getting information out to people.

Omar Wasow: I agree that internet users are not a representative sample of the general population but I think the net has to used as a two-way communication and activism tool. If it is just for one-way dissemination of information, much of the value is lost. Why not just use traditional media if the goal is to push a message on a passive audience?


Anonymous: I see young people, i.e. Millennials, were for Obama by a 2 1/2 to 1 margin. Millennials grew up with the Internet and are very versed in its use. Is this the beginning of a whole new cultural change, politically and socially, where views are more liberal and the Internet a major force on people's lives?

Omar Wasow: It's a very good question. I'm not sure if it's a cohort effect in response to Bush or if it's a cohort effect due to the internet. If it's the first, then the Net plays a secondary role and the change may be limited to an eight-year window. If it's the second, then it might represent a long term trend in American politics. I suspect it's the first, though, and the right will become much more of a presence online under an Obama administration.


There is probably a non-technical reason for it that I'm not aware of. : Yes, there probably is, since remote voting has been possible since the invention of the telegraph. Possibly this has something to do with Congress not working very well when all the members are absent because speaking face to face is useful in practice.

Omar Wasow: Good point. I suspect the reason is even more strategic. Perhaps being able to use "absence" as an excuse is useful.


Washington, DC: I volunteered and mainly because of the web -- it enabled me to make calls from my house. I also went out on the streets to knock doors, but a lot of that involvement was facilitated through the information I received from the campaign through emails and text msgs.

Omar Wasow: Hey DC: Thanks for sharing your experience. What you're describing is exactly what I suspected was a key benefit of Obama's use of tech. By making it easy to "dip one's toe" in the water of activism, more people did it on his behalf and perhaps even became more engaged to do things like knocking on doors.


Bowie, MD: While I agree that the internet could be used for 2 way communication, there are many pitfalls with using it this way. Chief among them - overreliance on the data that is received. Also, there is a greater possibility of misinterpretation that can happen using the internet. It is impossible to tell who is actually sending in comments and if these comments are genuine.

Omar Wasow: You're absolutely right that authentication and trust are big issues online. Also, I fully agree that the Net should not be viewed as the *only* solution to problems of communication and engagement. However, used effectively, the Net can be a very powerful way to allow the audience to have a voice, to coordinate activities, to link like-minded folks to each other and so on. At heart, I think the Obama campaign succeeded online because they allowed the audience to be active participants.

They've got to figure out a way to do that for governing, too. How can the President help people become more engaged citizens? It's a big question. It's also got to be done in a way that respects individual liberty and civil society.


Washington DC: In answer to your question...I volunteered for the campaign and the Net played an important part in the work I did and the money I gave. The campaign sent messages using my name making it very personal, and although I knew I was one of millions who was getting the same message, it went a long way in getting me to respond.

The campaign also timed the messages very well...although there were many, they did not overwhelm me or tie up my system..that too was very smart and was important in holding my interest.

Omar Wasow: Hey DC: They did send a lot of messages! I agree though that they timed them superbly. I suspect that part of the campaign's success is that they pushed the outer limits of sending campaign emails. That said, it worked well for them and the Clinton and McCain campaigns started to do the same eventually.

Your point about holding interest is compelling. I haven't thought much about how using email allows a donor to become a more sustained participant over a long period of time.


Omar Wasow: Hey folks, muchas gracias for a lot of great questions and feedback. Thanks for taking the time to read the piece, share your stories and ask probing questions!


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