In his first term, President Barack Obama created an environment of transparency never before experienced in American politics. His strategy? Personalized tweets. Facebook updates. And his very own YouTube channel. Today he assumes the highest office in the land for a second term. But, if he is to succeed, he must fully embrace the digital age.
Written by Jason Parham (@nonlinearnotes)
“He was the first politician I dealt with who understood that the technology was a given and that it could be used in new ways.” –Marc Andreessen, 2008
In 2008, in the wake of the financial crisis, America elected a black man, Barack Hussein Obama, to its highest office. This moment, often rhapsodized as one of great historical and cultural import, marked the beginning a new American narrative. For so long the story of America had been told with moneyed white men in the leading role. But on January 20, 2009, a cold fever of excitement and awe surging throughout DC and the nation, Obama accepted his post as commander-in-chief, and became the first black president of the United States.
But Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency has always been about more than his skin color. The Hawaiian-born, Harvard-educated politician exists in many worlds—the breezy enclaves of Honolulu, Chicago’s gritty Southside, DC’s old establishment—each with its own story of him. The well-known Walt Whitman line comes to mind: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” The most important story, though, will be the one Obama tells; the one that will unravel before our eyes these next four years. It will not be an extension of the stories chronicled in Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, but the story of now, of how Obama will cement his legacy as commander-in-chief. More than any other president, Obama understands he has a story to tell. That he must live his story as he writes it.
The way in which Obama has told his story up until this point, and the way he will continue to tell it, is perhaps the most important tenet of his narrative. Obama’s embrace of social media—utilizing social networks as a means of encouraging civic engagement—has allowed him to create a conversation, and often times an open dialogue, with the public. He has created an environment of transparency never before experienced in American politics, a sort of new political ecology for the digital age.
A New Political Ecology
“He came into this office a figure of history, unlike anyone who's become president since George Washington. The simple event of him remains a great gravitational force in our politics. It changes the other parts of our politics in their customary orbits.” –Charles P. Pierce, 2012
Aside from Newark Mayor Cory Booker, never before has such an important political figure been able to create a sense of connection and engagement through online platforms with constituents. A great deal of Obama’s story, and the dissemination of that story, has depended on his understanding of sites like Tumblr and Facebook.
More than any other president, Obama understands he has a story to tell. That he must live his story as he writes it.
In the aftermath of the 2008 campaign against Senator John McCain, the online grassroots push skewed heavily in Obama’s favor. The stats are startling: the Obama-Biden campaign built 5 million supporters on social networks, had 2.5 million followers on Facebook alone, sent 13 million emails, had 4 million digital donors, and 50 million viewers watched 14 million hours of video on YouTube, which was still only three years old. Even more impressive: 1,800 videos were posted to YouTube, many of which had more than one million views. By bucking traditional political etiquette, the Obama-Biden campaign was successful in not just getting Obama into the White House but also in creating a movement via social media. Therein lies the secret (partially, any way): Social media as movement. In the age of Obama, a tweet to your 300 followers about the importance of registering to vote is just as vital as knocking on doors in an effort to get community members to the polls.
Fast forward to the 2012 campaign and a similar story plays out. A Pew Research study examined social media activity between the Obama and Romney campaigns from June 4 to June 17 and found that the Romney camp tweeted on average once a day while the Obama campaign tweeted on average 29 times. The sheer output Obama has been able to manage is unlike anything we have ever experienced.
As researcher Richard Parker pointed out in the New York Times, the 2012 campaign was about “more than media. The Obama campaign correctly understood that to reach certain cohorts most effectively it would have to move beyond traditional media to the media that most resonates with Hispanics, young women, African-Americans and even Asian-Americans."
Obama has created a new political ecology. Politicians on Twitter, Facebook updates about policy, and behind-the-scene photos on Instagram will now be the norm. The way politicians engage with constituents has forever changed.
Obama’s Social Media Legacy
“The medium is the message.” –Marshall McLuhan, 1964
Alan Zorfas, president of the market research firm Motista, once likened Obama to “Apple” and Mitt Romney to “Dell.” The comparison, it must be noted, is not without merit. Obama was able to actualize his understanding of the social media universe into effective campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Apple is often idolized for its cutting-edge design and forward-thinking aesthetic. And at his best, Obama embodies the future of American political clarity through this innovative approach.
In one of his YouTube videos from 2008, Obama tells viewers about an essential factor of his digital strategy: Transparency. “We will put government data online in universally accessible formats,” he says. But more than this, more than granting access to everyday citizens via Tumblr interviews or YouTube clips, Obama must, too, now keep up with the changing nature of technology. In a Times Magazine essay Matt Bai noted: “Once you’re in office, the story you tell about and to the country isn’t some barely tolerable performance that distracts you from the job of being president. It is, to a large extent, the presidency itself.” And yet, most importantly is how Obama tells his story. Up until now he has out Facebook’d, out Twitter’d, and out Tumblr’d the competition. But, if he is to succeed going forward, if he is to fully accept his place in history, he must continue to embrace and adapt to the changing social media landscape.
Today, as hundreds of thousands line the National Mall, excited at the dawn of another four years, hopeful that the direction Obama has promised to take this country will prove true, his—and our—story begins anew. Today, the narrative of Barack Obama begins with a tweet.