Change.gov against Obama

by Henry on January 9, 2009

One of the safer predictions I’ve made in recent years is this (in The American Prospect):

[O]nline activists are unlikely to follow Obama if he moves toward a post-ideological politics of citizenship and may even use Obama’s own machine to organize against him (as they did within MyBarackObama.com when Obama announced his support for controversial wiretapping legislation). By rebuilding the Democratic Party around a model that is friendlier to decentralized online participation, Obama is … making it easier for Democratic activists to organize in protest against overly “moderate” decisions

But I didn’t expect it to start happening quite so soon.

Ari Melber in The Nation.

A whopping 70,000 questions poured into Change.gov over the past week, in response to the Obama transition team’s call for citizen queries to the President-Elect. After votes from about 100,000 people, the top ranked question asks Obama whether he will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of torture and illegal surveillance by the U.S. government. I’ve been working with activist Bob Fertik to organize support for the question, and several progressive bloggers urged readers and Obama supporters to vote for it last week.

See also (via Ari) the NYT

the number one submission on the popular “Open for Questions” portion of the site might seem more than a little impolitic to the current, and soon to be former, occupant of the White House. … Though the Obama team has promised to answer some of the top questions as early as this week, they have not said whether they will respond to Mr. Fertik’s, which has received more than 22,000 votes since the second round of the question-and-answer feature began on Dec. 30.

This goes to the heart of the contradictions that the Obama people successfully managed to straddle during the campaign, but are (I think) going to have increasing difficulty in dealing with going forward. The Obama people combined very tight top-down message control and campaign coordination with a fair degree of openness at the bottom to independent initiatives by volunteers. As long as everyone agreed on the same underlying goal (beating the Republicans), this worked. But as that overwhelming imperative recedes, people are going to start pursuing their own objectives – and the ‘open’ architecture that the Obama people have constructed provides them with plenty of opportunities to do this.

And this is a pretty significant problem for an administration that is likely to be obsessed with discipline and message control. People calling for investigations by an independent prosecutor into torture can’t be dismissed as trolls or cranks. They are articulating a set of values which is likely held by a substantial majority of Democrats and Obama supporters. But it’s politically inconvenient, for a variety of reasons, for the Obama people to acknowledge this, much less to do anything about it. Under normal politics, they might be able to sweep this under the rug – after all Obama and his team are supposed to be the public face of the Democratic party. But the creation of an open architecture, where others can bring inconvenient issues up – and very likely keep on bringing them up – makes it substantially more difficult for them to maintain control of the conversation.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the new architecture of MyBarackObama.com, Change.gov etc are going to enhance the agenda setting power of the president. This will likely happen in some instances, but in others, as here, the volunteer movement going to be more of a bully than a bully pulpit, setting the agenda rather than serving as a glorified force-multiplier for things that the president would like to see happen. Being a cynic, I suspect that the Obama people are going to discount and try to distance themselves from the bits of the architecture that they can’t control, but if I’m right, they may have some difficulty in so doing as these forums take on a life of their own.

{ 37 comments }

1

noen 01.09.09 at 3:13 pm

All sounds good to me. I was sort of under the impression that is how this Democracy thing is supposed to work.

2

Jared 01.09.09 at 3:44 pm

I second neon’s opinion. It also seems possible to me that there IS still an underlying goal: fixing the economy. It’s up to Obama to provide a vision on how to do that, but I don’t see how that is new. His role here might look very much like FDR’s. He’s been fairly silent until a couple days ago; hopefully he’ll provide more substance after Jan 20. “One president at a time” might be smart politically, but I don’t think it helps him get his agenda accepted.

3

Seth Finkelstein 01.09.09 at 3:46 pm

“the volunteer movement going to be more of a bully …”

I probably shouldn’t get into this (bad idea for me on a risk/reward basis :-() , but I believe the flaw in your reasoning is confusing the various parts of the machinery and imputing power to a relatively powerless portion of it.

Obama’s great achievement was getting an online fundraising system and campaigning organization. Myth to the contrary, this has relatively little to do with the sort of general bloviating so beloved by professional talkers.

Proof: We went through this with the FISA/wiretapping bill. The rants about betrayal didn’t matter one bit.

4

Henry 01.09.09 at 4:15 pm

Seth – you’re wrong here. Much of the power in politics comes from agenda setting – deciding which issues get discussed, and which issues don’t. This is because politicians would frequently prefer to slide through debates over difficult or thorny issues without having to justify their positions – and ensuring that these issues are never debated (or are only debated in limited ways) is a quite nice way of doing this. The Obama administration is going to have substantially greater difficulty in doing this because they have created this open platform. Issues that are awkward and uncomfortable are going to get raised in debate, and sometimes they are going to have to answer questions that they would have preferred to avoid, expending political capital by placating some supporters while annoying others. The result of FISA was a limited victory in that it forced Obama to justify his position in public. If the Obama administration has to justify why it isn’t investigating torture, that will carry significant political costs and hurt it with some of its supporters. It would obviously prefer that the question not be raised – but that it is the number one question on Change.gov makes it considerably harder to ignore. If it makes you feel any better, this is less a feature of Internet participation as such than a decision made by the Obama people to make Internet participation a small but real part of their policy agenda setting apparatus (they were perhaps expecting Bob Putnam to show up, and instead they got MoveOn.org).

More generally, this kind of thing is why political organizations typically devote so much effort to ensuring that some people are sitting at the table during certain discussions and able to ask questions, and some people aren’t. The clearest example of this having significant political consequences was the Social Security debate, where Josh Marshall and others genuinely forced people like Harold Ford to get off the fence (they were hoping to slide through the debate without having to answer the hard questions, and they weren’t able to). Hence, in significant part, the collapse of Republican efforts to woo centrist Democrats to their side of the issue. And no – this isn’t agenda setting power, or hard political power – but it demonstrably can have real and significant political consequences.

5

bob mcmanus 01.09.09 at 4:17 pm

New York Times says today that Congressional Democrats would rather have a Democratic Stimulus Bill than Obama’s Republican Stimulus Bull and are pushing back hard at Summers. We will not be able to change much where actual liberals in Congress disagree with Obama, but it is starting to look like Obama will be a net minus for Democrats in 2010.

So we need to work on Congress. Congress passes the legislation. Obama can make pretty speeches at GMU and other Republican centers as long as he signs the bills.

Then we try to find a liberal to run in 2012.

6

Joshua Holmes 01.09.09 at 4:41 pm

Obama campaigned on change, and his supporters are going to hold him to it. Good on ’em. Start with torture and Iraq.

7

Barry 01.09.09 at 4:59 pm

Henry, good comment – it persuaded me.

8

Pete 01.09.09 at 5:03 pm

I second the “what’s wrong with this?” calls.

If the Obama administration has to justify why it isn’t investigating torture, that will carry significant political costs and hurt it with some of its supporters.

I’d like Harry to justify why torture shouldn’t be investigated.

9

Doctor Science 01.09.09 at 5:24 pm

an administration that is likely to be obsessed with discipline and message control.

um, what? Compared to whom? On what do you base this word “obsession”?

10

Seth Finkelstein 01.09.09 at 5:46 pm

Proof: “The result of FISA was a limited victory in that it forced Obama to justify his position in public. “

Oh my god, he was forced to justify his position in public. FEEL THE POWER!
Another way of viewing this is “He threw a sop to angry supporters by mumbling something about it”.

Regarding “where Josh Marshall and others genuinely forced …” – I’m skeptical. One thing I’ve observed is the political use of those-darn-bloggers as an excuse. There’s situations where all power blocks seem to have an incentive to say is was those bloggers, goldarnit, they just twisted my arm into it. Basically it’s a polite fiction for everyone. And blog-evangelists like this most of all, since it boosts their business (anti-strawman: I’m not saying you’re a blog-evangelist, that’s just a general comment – this is why it’s probably not good for me to get into this, too many opportunities to be strawman’ed or derailed).
Note th burden of proof is on you for this extraordinary claim assuming it unproved otherwise, not on me to disprove it assuming it true otherwise.

I’m not saying authorities can’t be embarrassed by data-mining systems. I’ve written about that. However, there’s a vast jump between snarky little quasi-gaffes, and any real power effects. I’ve seen enough of this sort of thing to know it doesn’t make any sort of difference.

11

MarkUp 01.09.09 at 6:03 pm

Obama’s great achievement was getting an online fundraising system and campaigning organization.

I’m skeptical. One thing I’ve observed is the political use of those-darn-bloggers as an excuse.

So they/it can be both? Maybe this part of “the change.” Or, as others might say follow the money.

12

Martin James 01.09.09 at 6:09 pm

1. The activists need Obama more than Obama needs the activists for a simple reason. The activists don’t yet have what they want (change) but Obama does have what he wants (the presidency).

Furthermore , the Clinton presidency taught us that moving to the center gets you re-elected easily and Bush II taught us that the president can pretty much just tell the whole world to go to hell.

2. I don’t think Obama’s political appointments represent someone obsessed with discipline and message control. Too many big legislative types appointed to too many executive positions to not have lots of messages circulating.

Take healthcare for example. Who is exercising the discipline and message control on that front?

3. The biggest effectd would seem to be not with Obama but with the legislative agenda. How the battle shakes out between the left and center factions of the democrats.

13

Aaron 01.09.09 at 6:11 pm

+1

Thanks, Henry.

14

roy belmont 01.09.09 at 6:36 pm

Henry, “deciding which issues get discussed” by whom? Aside from who’s making the decisions, who’s doing that discussing? Rahm Emmanuel and Hillary Clinton?
Since there’s pretty obviously a feedback loop between career politicians and other interest groups than simply a majority of the citizenry, and since there’s pretty obviously a still powerful however weakening agenda-setting apparatus from which that simple majority takes its cues as to what to be concerned about anyway, where’s the discussion taking place? Happy hour at the local? Backstage at AIPAC? In the cafeterias of Wal-Mart? In the living rooms of the recently laid-off?
Considering how appallingly little effect the rejection of the Iraq war by the 2006 electorate had, once those they elected specifically to end it gained office, this seems willfully naive, however condite.
Seth Finkelstein’s right. You seem to be confusing agile p.r. and cathartic pageantry for the impotent majority with the achieved results of exercised political power. The power of that majority being now a kind of natural resource and almost never an expression of conscious native will.
Growling at and biting sock puppets, or its jubilant converse, is not the same as demanding and getting real change. It just feels like it.

15

sg 01.09.09 at 6:53 pm

Seth, I think the Australian experience with Aboriginal issues gives a salutary example of both the importance of agenda setting and the problem Obama faces. From the 80s in Australia, Aboriginal equality was an agenda driven with some success against the general mood of the populace by leftist leaders, culminating in the sterling efforts of Paul Keating. When Keating was replaced with a conservative in 96, the agenda had been set so well by years of effort that a movement generated quite rapidly to force the conservatives to continue the reconciliation process. They refused, and it led to many ugly confrontations, including the massive demonstration on the harbour bridge and Midnight Oil’s “sorry” song at the 2000 Olympics.

That movement culminated, in the last 2 elections the conservatives faced, with the conservatives facing a backlash in their traditional heartland, from the electoral group they started derogatorally referring to as “doctor’s wives”, which forced them to expend resources and time defending their key seats. And in the last election, the Prime Minister was voted out of his own seat and replaced with a leftist ex-journalist (every conservative’s hate-figure!) There were (obviously) many reasons for the PM’s loss of that seat, but undoubtedly the increasing impatience of a rump of these wealthy, socially-concerned but essentially conservative voters was part of it. The “doctor’s wives” had been led to water by previous agenda-setting leaders, and they became very insistent on being allowed to drink. Those “doctor’s wives” never quite undid the government, but they were a constant thorn in its side and the conservatives did expend political capital defending their flanks, as it were.

Successful leaders need to find ways to contain those big social movements which support them. The obvious other example would be New Labour in England, who managed to completely contain the unions; or again, Labor in Australia, who kep the unions well under control in the 80s while they repaired the economy. (I have no idea if Obama’s interwebby mates are a powerful social movement though).

16

Henry 01.09.09 at 7:40 pm

Seth – do you actually _know anything_ about the Social Security debate in general, or Harold Ford’s position in it in particular? I rather suspect not, or you wouldn’t be making the argument that you are making. I know that you have this Pavlovian reflex which kicks in whenever you read something that you think smacks of blog evangelism (or merely making the empirical claim that blogs and similar sometimes do have empirical consequences which to my mind is a rather different thing) – but the facts and the details matter in this instance. And they support this story. After months of refusing point blank to issue an explicit statement on Social Security, Ford issued a statement (which he very clearly didn’t want to, given his political priors) within 24 hours of being singled out by Marshall. He didn’t want to support Social Security. He ended up having to. That’s a real and significant exercise of power. Now this kind of power, as I stressed above, isn’t genuine agenda setting power (it only works under some quite limited conditions). Nor does it equate to the actual decision making power that people in government have. But it can and demonstrably have consequences – and to maintain that it can’t on the basis of a hand-waving comparison between the language of blog evangelists and more specific and limited empirical claims is rather silly.

In any event, this isn’t an argument about the Internet – it’s actually about the causes and effects of agenda control. Given the rather extraordinary lengths to which political and other organizations actually go in order to control agendas and prevent people who they don’t want to speak from raising awkward questions, I rather think that the onus is on you to demonstrate why all these efforts and counterefforts are misguided, and why it really doesn’t matter who says what.

Roy – I think you are missing the point here, which is that this is a vehicle that the Obama team set up themselves to solicit public opinion that could then influence the policy process. This makes it rather more difficult and embarrassing to ignore completely than opinions expressed in people’s sitting rooms &c.

Pete – two points. First – I’m not Harry. Second – you really need to read the post again a little more carefully – it isn’t arguing what you think it is.

17

Martin Bento 01.09.09 at 8:03 pm

Well, you can go over to change.gov and see how “Obama” responded. He shunted the question off to a “things I already answered” category, implying that this is a question from those paying poor attention to stubbornly pushing a settled issue. The answer provided there was actually from Biden, and while it explicitly did not rule prosecution in or out, it was very big on looking forward not back. Of course, since one cannot prosecute crimes that have not yet taken place, “looking forward” always means looking away from justice. Many times this is the right thing to do, but not this time.

18

Righteous Bubba 01.09.09 at 8:25 pm

In any event, this isn’t an argument about the Internet – it’s actually about the causes and effects of agenda control.

Right. The Josh Marshall influence on Social Security was real because it involved the community of actual constituents he could muster to hassle politicians about their views: it wasn’t really about the magical power of his heroic ability to rearrange pixels, although it helps to have a computer instead of a megaphone to do it.

19

Henry 01.09.09 at 8:44 pm

Hi Martin

That’s unsurprising if depressing – but the manifest evasion invites another, reformulated question for next time around – ‘you have said that you would neither rule in nor rule out … now make your mind up,’ When I said:

But the creation of an open architecture, where others can bring inconvenient issues up – and very likely keep on bringing them up – makes it substantially more difficult for them to maintain control of the conversation.

I should perhaps have stressed more that ‘and very likely keep on bringing them up’ is doing much of the work here.

20

The Raven 01.09.09 at 8:46 pm

…and what happens if Rush Limbaugh starts sending people to change.gov?

Krawk!

21

Righteous Bubba 01.09.09 at 8:46 pm

it helps to have a computer instead of a megaphone to do it.

Not to rearrange pixels of course but to organize a political action.

22

MarkUp 01.09.09 at 8:48 pm

Of course, since one cannot prosecute crimes that have not yet taken place, “looking forward” always means looking away from justice. Many times this is the right thing to do, but not this time.

Rare in this arena is it the right thing to do; expedient or prudent perhaps, but not right with the capital “R” We the Peons deserve desire demand dismiss far too often as being possible. That They have systemically deigned, broadly, accountability is not reason to excuse the behavior in all but the most obvious [public] cases. Pardon me.

23

Henry 01.09.09 at 9:02 pm

So Aaron – any update on yr paper?

24

The Raven 01.09.09 at 9:07 pm

The incoming administration is answering these questions just like they answer hard questions from the press–evasively. I don’t think they’ve yet grasped that they’re not propagandizing the press any more–they’re talking directly to the people who helped elect them. They can deceive through an intermediary, and a lot of people will brush it off. But when they deceive the public directly, that raises a lot more anger.

25

beezer 01.09.09 at 9:40 pm

A great discussion. But where will it rank with the 11 million new unemployed? Hope there’s at least an equal discussion somewhere about that.

26

Seth Finkelstein 01.09.09 at 9:45 pm

Henry: Yes, I know about the Social Security debate in general, mostly from the angle of hearing a lot of nonsense about the-stock-market-returns-X%-PONZI-SCHEME and the debate being a case study of mathematical lying for the benefit of plutocrats. Now, whenever someone makes a claim like (my emphasis) “where [minor partisan press] genuinely forced people like [politician] to …”, this warrants skepticism, not gospel gullibility. Especially since so many such claims turn out to be puffery or propaganda.

Then of course come the strawmen – “Given the rather extraordinary lengths to which political and other organizations actually go in order to control agendas and prevent people who they don’t want to speak from raising awkward questions, I rather think that the onus is on you to demonstrate why all these efforts and counterefforts are misguided”
Did I ever say anything like that, ALL THESE EFFORTS? You’re doing a familiar two-step, of making claims that can be read very broadly, “But the creation of an open architecture, where others can bring inconvenient issues up – and very likely keep on bringing them up – makes it substantially more difficult for them to maintain control of the conversation.” – and then retreating to a reading where any trivial meaning is taken as proving the statement.

Which bring us to “but the manifest evasion invites another, reformulated question for next time around …”
Remember one of my laments: No reasonable evidence will ever be accepted as refutation.

27

roy belmont 01.09.09 at 9:58 pm

Henry, thanks for your patience if I am indeed missing the point. Though I’m afraid what it is is I’m being too elliptical about my own contention.
More than happy to be surprised but it looks very much as though Obama’s team is likely to repay his ostensible base the way GWBush and Co. did his. By smiling and making demographically-appropriate telegenic noises, while said base gets royally screwed in unexpected ways.
There’s a symmetry in the two figures that’s deeply disturbing to some of us. And a suspicious continuity behind the scenes.
Obama’s the anti-Bush, no doubt about it. Just maybe a little too precisely.

28

soullite 01.09.09 at 10:05 pm

Some people sound like the Democratic Party circa 1999 saying Liberals didn’t matter because Impeachment failed (and liberals had his back) and Clinton was re-elected in 96 despite all the belly aching.

And then 2000 happened, and the left-wing 3rd party challenger garned 2.5 million more votes than he was ever able to get before or since, and tossed the election to GWB.

You ignore your base at your own peril. You don’t need most, or even many, of them to defect to cause a loss. You really only need some. That’s why they are called your ‘base’, if you lose even a little bit everything else comes toppling down.

29

Henry 01.09.09 at 10:13 pm

Seth – after prosecuting this rather fruitless argument with you over the last couple of years, it honestly seems to me that it is you who is in principle incapable of being convinced by evidence rather than me. As best as I can see you have three sort-of arguments.

(1) The argument by analogy. Claim _x_ looks (if you squint at it in the right light) rather like the claims being made by people who I think are silicon snake oil merchants. Therefore (without having to look at the specifics of the argument or the case) I can dismiss it as being _ipso facto_ worthless.

(2) The zero sum argument. When somebody wins, someone somewhere else must be losing, and vice versa. It’s a mathematical certainty (proof available from author on request).

(3) The ‘more than my job’s worth’ argument. A corollary to (1) to the effect that if I told you what was really going on, They’d get me and They’d get me good.

Rinse and repeat as often as necessary.

The problem isn’t that you are necessarily wrong – in plenty of situations I am sure you are right. Lots of people are snake oil merchants of one sort or another, and Internet/e-commerce appear to be inflicted with an unusual concentration of them. Lots of situations are indeed zero sum games. But not all. And there are real issues with applying a one-size-fits-all explanation to everything that seems vaguely to resemble a set of situations that you have had reason to become embittered over. Most obviously, this ‘explanation’ becomes less an argument or framework than a means of constructing a bulwark against having to engage with possible confounding evidence or change your mind about things. I honestly find this a bit of a tragedy, because you’re clearly smart and articulate. But your output on this seems to me to be less a set of arguments than a set of semi-autonomous reflexes.

30

Righteous Bubba 01.09.09 at 10:15 pm

Now, whenever someone makes a claim like (my emphasis) “where [minor partisan press] genuinely forced people like [politician] to …”, this warrants skepticism, not gospel gullibility.

Sure. In TPM’s case they managed to assemble this list of Republicans and their stands on Social Security phase-out, in many cases as a result of reader calls to constituent offices.

So yeah, TPM in many cases forced Republicans to go on record regarding their positions, though not because of the force of their writing but because readers were willing to bug their reps about it. Changes to Social Security were unpopular and weasels were trying to walk the line between ideological conformity and doing what their constituents believed was good.

31

Miriam 01.09.09 at 10:36 pm

Regardless, I went to change.gov and cast my vote for Fertik’s question because I really don’t see any other way of communicating with the administration.

But I also wrote to my representatives in Congress because Congress can initiate investigations.

32

Martin Bento 01.10.09 at 2:59 am

Henry, well my bet is that they have now established two precedents that will become standard:

1) If they feel they have responded to a question adequately, they need not address it again, no matter how many people ask.

2) They don’t have to answer the questions, just respond. Biden’s response was clearly not an answer, but they are pushing it as sufficient.

I think they may be more to your general argument that this example suggests. But I think “MyBarackObama” will remain “HisBarackObama” in reality. I think more important is furthering the reach of the liberal blogosphere, which seems to have plateaued. The mainstream media, especially papers, seems headed for hard times and there could be an opening here. I’m more skeptical of anything actually controlled by the administration.

33

Naadir Jeewa 01.10.09 at 11:48 am

How does the Obama website compare to say, the 10 Downing Street e-petition site?

34

john devlin 01.10.09 at 1:22 pm

if Obama appoints Blair and Brennan to intell the progrssives and center lefties should scream long and loud. Blair is a war criminal who has already lied to congress (see DemocracyNow.org January 9) and Brennan supports rendition and torture. Obama’s silence on Gaza and the out of control Israel government represent the worst of the US and Israel. Be forewarned.

35

Amadeus Guy 01.12.09 at 6:20 pm

When do we get to see the follow through on the subpoena for Karl Rove ?

36

Intelitary Milligence 01.12.09 at 8:09 pm

I think it’s pathetic to give Obama credit for creating an online platform that has existed since the days of slashdot and Internet Relay Chat.

I’m not talking about the technology. That’s even older. We’ve had the guns for a long time, just not known how to use them.

I’m talking about the ability of individuals to trust the interface (from I don’t want to date online to SHE SAID WHAT? ON MYSPACE). Thank the clickity-click trigger happy chatterbugs for validating the platform as average people compatible. It ain’t virtual no more.

That hurdle has been dealt with easily by most people who give a damn about TEH SITUATION. Passing that hurdle makes the new opportunities as legitimate (or as false as the case maybe) as the traditional modes and they traditional modes are finding new life as virtuality loses its novelty and Internet means meet people fast.

I’m generally skeptical (voted Baldwin) but let’s give credit where it’s due: WE DID IT before he SAID WE CAN.

37

Omega Centauri 01.15.09 at 5:54 am

I see one potentially strong defense. It follows from the way I think (I hope not delusionally) that Obama is probably thinking. And that is that he has a mental list of progressive things that would be great to accomplish, which doesn’t differ greatly from my own. But, I also presume, that he understands that he can’t just aggressively push through this list. He will be president -not absolute dictator for life. I assume that he is thinking that he has to be very careful in choosing which (political) battles he can fight. In which order he should fight them, and what circumstances would be most advantageous for the advancement of which items. In the few communications I’ve sent (I don’t know if change.gov goes to the bit bucket, or if someone of any importance actually reads anything I’ve sent in, thats the frustrating part of it). In any case when breaching a subject that he has clearly been avoiding (or perhaps doesn’t even care about ), I acknowledge that I’m sure he has his own strategic thinking for the order in which to attack the various progressive items on our list.

This of course could suggest a pretty robust defense tactic for him. I’m planning to tackle X, but I think it is too risky breech the subject just now. I’m carefully preparing the battleground so as to maximize my chance of success. I intend to attack at the most opportune moment!…

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