A new study from the Pew Research Center documents the prevalence and success of the White House's “We the People” petitions over time, and it's much heavier on the former than the latter.
The White House itself has pointed to a few examples of concrete action: a new law assuring cellphone users could transfer their phones to another network, a White House call to end gay conversion therapy for minors and awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Yogi Berra.
Pew spotlighted a couple more: one in which a petition helped broker a meeting between the Obamas and 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin, and another that asked President Obama to appear on HBO's “Real Time With Bill Maher” months before he eventually did.
It's possible that other petitions might have moved the needle here or there, but after five years this is basically what we can account for. One concrete law, one example of Obama doing something that people probably assumed he had already done (Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had signed a gay conversion ban in 2013, nearly two years before Obama's White House took an official stance) and three petitions involving giving something to a specific person.
All of that is the result of a Pew review of about 4,800 petitions that received at least 150 signatures in their first month on the “We the People” website. Pew coded and reviewed them all to gauge what Americans are most interested in when it comes to petitioning government.
And as you might have guessed, what interests wide swaths of Americans can tend toward the trivial. Pew reviewed the top 10 petitions as far as signature-gathering and found three of them with distinct pop-culture vibes. The first is the Maher petition, which is both the fourth-most-popular petition of all time and arguably the most successful; the other two are deporting Bieber (No. 4) and extraditing the man who killed Cecil the Lion (No. 7).
(Not appearing in the top 10 is that petition to build the Death Star, which earned an amazing official White House response and remains possibly the most publicized petition of all time.)
Which isn't to say that people aren't interested in substantive policy items. Half of the top 10 listed above have to do with weighty foreign policy matters, and they're right up there with that other weighty foreign policy matter: sending the Biebs back to Canada.
But none of them have led to action. And three of the top 10 topic areas involve levying punishment on specific people (No. 10), investigating specific cases (No. 6) and awarding people or starting new holidays (No. 5). Oh, and No. 15 is pardon requests.
So in large part, it appears that the White House's petition process is serving much the same role as social media and blogs play in spurring Washington to action: a cathartic place to push your opinion or pet issue — and, hopefully, demonstrate widespread public support — with very little likelihood of actual, measurable success.