Politics & Media
Dec 12, 2008, 06:45AM

Obama's Monitor-Side Chats

For the president-elect, a revitalized digital infrastructure could be the key to effective government.

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The US Congress has once again delayed issuing a bailout of America’s auto industry to the tune of $14 billion. Regardless of where you stand with Detroit, what makes this situation disheartening is the fact that it’s simply one piece in the growing knot of economic, domestic and foreign policies the Obama Administration is going to have on January 21.

In the last presidential debate, with the financial sector imploding, both candidates were asked to prioritize their spending initiatives. Sen. John McCain cornered himself with a proposed spending freeze; President-elect Obama wouldn’t commit to scaling back any of his key proposals—energy, health care, Iraq and Afghanistan (although now, with the recession gaining speed, he has signaled he is willing to put off rolling back President Bush’s tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.)

When January 21 comes—trumpeted by an expected Inauguration Day turnout of some four million people—patience may be in short supply. The American public is most immediately affected by the economic situation, no doubt, but it seems impossible to deny that energy and health care reform are major factors in salvaging the economy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are tied up in it all as well. Obama is obviously looking at America’s issues with a wide lens—you can’t prioritize one agenda over another without sacrificing something. President Clinton’s administration went straight from Inauguration Day into a quagmire over gays in the military (though it is difficult to think of moral issues in terms of legislative priority) and health care reform. The former is an embarrassment to equal rights and the latter, some argue, set back health care reform another 15 years.

Obama has a Democratic Party majority in both houses. This is, of course, good for his legislative priorities. But as the current crises with Detroit illustrates, the current Democrat-controlled Congress isn’t making strong headway or bold decisions. It’s stuttering and stalling, business as usual. Will Obama’s widely lauded Cabinet picks and boost in the Democratic Party’s congressional majority be enough to jump start a government left stranded by President Bush? Every strata of American life is hoping that will be the case.

The government’s wheels have been spinning in the mud for a while now, however, and partisan battles are not the only cause. Allow me to point out a small example. Technology Liberation Front reported that the main search page on the Federal Communications Commission’s website hasn’t been updated since 2003. 2003. That’s of a caliber in line with Google’s taking this country’s lack of viable voting resources into its own hands. The Washington Post reported yesterday that Google and Microsoft have been making continual overtures to the US Government to start digitizing its records for easier public perusal. Someone can’t just hop on a search engine and find out what sort of Environmental Protection Agency enforcement actions were filed against the local mill. It’s a serious breach of the social contract between the government and its public.

The digitization and streamlining of government data, websites and accessibility could very well be a crucial factor in rejuvenating the country. Obama’s transition team has already set up an online public forum for submitting questions to the incoming Administration. As Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic put it:
Open For Questions will probably be a vehicle for the Obama grassroots groups to organize support around White House priorities.  It will help him get political cover for more controversial items that he wants to tackle, and it has the side benefit of making sure the White House never loses touch with the priorities of the electorate (or at least, the engaged electorate).
The more of the country Obama can keep involved, the better chance he has of finding success. It’s as much about changing the national attitude as it is implementing policy. Remember Obama’s campaign suggestion that the benefits of off-shore drilling could be outdone by the nation checking its tire pressure? Remember the mocking shitstorm coming from the Right? Turns out, Obama was right. It was another case of public opinion knocked from its unstable perch on reality. It was a disservice to sane analysis.

A richer dialogue with the public—via better search engines, transparency and accessibility—could be the newest evolution of the fireside chat. Obama has already taken to YouTube, and Open For Questions is humming with activity. While the economy, energy and health care reform, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan vastly overshadow a badly needed search engine update, we’re going to find, as we have seen with health care reform since 1993, that putting it off only yields bigger problems later.

  • "A richer dialogue with the public," as Klein says, relying on digital means, is a nice idea, but it's really window-dressing compared to the nuts and bolts jobs ahead of Obama. A new sort of fireside chat might be novel, and actually engage people, but not as much as getting the economy back on the right track and figuring out how to make Congress stop playing politics all the time.

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