/ 16 November 2008

Obama’s wi-fi White House speaks to the YouTube age

It was a fireside chat for a wi-fi world. Barack Obama on Saturday launched his first regular weekly update to the American voters by YouTube. It was an ultra-modern echo of how Franklin D Roosevelt’s regular folksy radio broadcasts, complete with the sound of a fire crackling in the background, helped guide America through the Great Depression.

Now Obama is also facing a massive economic crisis and he is reaching out to the American public with a YouTube video. The move is part of a hi-tech revolution in politics that Obama has promised to bring to Washington when he takes office.

Technology and the internet are set to be a core part of the new administration, bolstered by Obama’s massive online army of supporters.

On Saturday, Obama’s first video appeared in the form of a response to the weekly radio address of President George Bush. But, once he takes over the Oval Office, he has vowed to appear each week on YouTube, speaking to the concerns of a nation and outlining his plans. It will be a marked contrast to Bush, who is not known for his mastery of technological skills and whose Oval Office desk appears to lack a computer.

As with FDR before him, it was the disastrous economic situation that was mostly on Obama’s mind on Saturday. Not yet in the White House, Obama sat in front of a plain wood-panelled wall next to the Stars and Stripes and warned Americans of the challenges ahead. ”Make no mistake; this is the greatest economic challenge of our times. While the road will be long and the work will be hard, I know we can steer ourselves out of this crisis,” he said.

Obama struck a tone that was familiar from the campaign trail. He spoke in a lofty tone, but with words aimed at inspiring hope and emphasising how he understood ordinary people’s pain. ”Millions of our fellow citizens lie awake each night wondering how they are going to pay their bills, stay in their homes and save for retirement,” he said. ”Out of this economic crisis comes an opportunity to create new jobs, strengthen our middle class and keep our economy competitive in the 21st century.”

Obama’s use of YouTube is the tip of a technological iceberg that is transforming politics in the US. His transition team in Chicago has also started using YouTube to keep Americans abreast of plans in the new administration. Last Thursday, the team co-chair Valerie Jarrett uploaded their first video explaining how the new administration planned to take on lobbyists.

Obama has big plans for a technological roll-out across the US. He is mulling over who shall be his ”chief technology officer”, a position that has not existed in government before. He wants to put videos of government meetings online, have officials hold online ”town hall meetings” and create an accessible internet database of government spending so that the public can track their tax dollars themselves.

All of this will be backed up by a big construction boom in America’s broadband network. America stands 15th out of 30 top industrialised nations when it comes to the percentage of citizens who have access to broadband. Obama has vowed to make broadband connections as common as telephone lines.

But by far the most revolutionary — and potentially the most politically risky — part of Obama’s hi-tech revolution is the internet army that stands behind him.

Obama plans to bring his online backers, who shattered fundraising records, with him to Washington. They are more than 3,1-million-strong in terms of financial contributors and volunteers. In terms of an email database of supporters, they number about 10-million and form perhaps the world’s biggest focus group. It is a massive lobby of activists across the nation, which Obama can directly access via email or social networking websites such as Facebook, Myspace or Twitter. He can deploy them in support of his plans, lobbying reluctant politicians or businesses. Nothing of its kind has ever existed before. They could help him to create one of the most powerful presidencies in history.

It is remarkable how swiftly the internet has changed politics, even before the tech-friendly Obama. Now YouTube can make or break politicians. Online forums are commonplace and every politician must raise money on the web. The revolution began in 2004, with Howard Dean’s doomed run for the Democratic nomination. The former Vermont governor discovered the power of internet fundraising and it allowed him to emerge from nowhere to frontrunner. Though his candidacy failed, it left a base of activists, dubbed the ”netroots”, who mostly flocked to Obama as the 2008 race unfolded.

Obama’s campaign used them widely, creating a disciplined campaign that out-fought and out-thought John McCain.

”It wouldn’t be overstating things to say that, if it wasn’t for the web, we’d be inaugurating a different 44th president on 20 January,’ said Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, the online newspaper.

Obama’s grateful embrace of the netroots happened in part because he appears tech-savvy himself. Some have dubbed him the first Blackberry president, as he can often be seen checking his mobile email device as soon as he gets off a plane. He is an iPod-tuned, Facebook-friendly, Twittering politician who fits right into the digital age and makes other leaders look analogue. He can communicate directly with the public via profiles on Facebook and MySpace, photographs on Flickr, videos on YouTube, text message feeds on Twitter and meetings on his own social network myBarackObama.com. ”I must say how excited we all have been to elect a president who at least carries a mobile device,” said Chris Sacca, an internet start-up investor.

Obama’s embrace of new ways of communicating — comparable to John F Kennedy’s mastery of the relatively new medium of television — means he can bypass the traditional political media in a way no other president can have dreamt of. It will put the Washington media establishment in the unusual position of being outsiders on a relationship between a President and his public. ”The decimation of mainstream media means that he and his direct-communications team will be able to work around the wreckage of the news business,” wrote Andrew Keen, a web entrepreneur.

Yet such power and accessibility may have a downside. The internet is an unruly place and his army of 3,1-million activists are likely to have 3,1-million different opinions on some matters. They will not be shy in vocalising them, nor will they be easy to control. If Obama does not move quickly on campaign promises or if he backtracks on certain issues, his supporters will be able to hold him to account, creating potential embarrassments ahead. Such are the pitfalls of what is essentially a brave new world when it comes to practising 21st-century politics. – guardian.co.uk