Remember the days when we elected politicians who didn’t know how to e-mail? While some candidates think they can still get by with rhetoric from the Stone Age (McCain, anyone?), those days of the not-so-technologically-savvy president are gone, thanks to Barack Obama’s administration. The Blackberry-toting Obama marks the country’s first president to adopt e-mail, despite the technology going mainstream some two decades ago. As a result of Obama’s Web 2.0 White House, we have a president eager to communicate through mediums neglected by past presidents and — for the first time in my generation — Americans have lent their ears to our new leader.
Whether we are willing participants or not, somehow, we have become more civically engaged, or more aware, at least. From the e-mail correspondence from campaign manager David Plouffe, a newly designed White House Web site, YouTube videos, and a White House blog, Obama has embarked on a continuous and unprecedented dialogue with the American people. According to Newsweek, live video streaming of some cabinet meetings is even under consideration. What began as an inspiring populist message at the 2004 Democratic National Convention transcended into a new communicative space few politicians can grasp, let alone utilize. From the first time we ‘Baracked the Vote‘ on Facebook or added Obama as our MySpace friend, his campaign’s rhetoric of hope, change and unity seeped into non-traditional mediums, achieving more than his election but also a sea change in political culture.
From his presidency on, Americans will come to expect superior communication and a more inclusive approach to governance. With this rhetorical presidency comes a greater role for the American people, a new stake in the political process. In turn, that also breeds greater demands for our future leaders and expectations for the new administration have never been so high. The question we must ask ourselves is whether it can inspire us to a new level of political astuteness and galvanize us to act in the best interest of our nation. The public is hopeful and still glowing from the much-awaited Bush exodus but Americans live in an instant gratification culture and they are prone to grow impatient with government. Reaching out to the Web 2.0 world has its risks.
But political communication scholar Jeffery Tulis argues that, in essence, a rhetorical presidency enhances the powers of the executive branch. By speaking directly to the people, he suggests, Obama may find himself less beholden to Congress and able to move new policy and legislation in a more expeditious manner, through public support and political transparency. Obama will quickly learn that when it comes to pleasing the American people, leaders must move swiftly. Thus far, he has proven that the power of rhetoric has come a long way since President Nixon’s awkward “Checkers” speech in 1952, and the foiled expressions and mispronounced words of the ‘misunderestimated’ George Bush.
If this administration finds success under this Web 2.0 model of governance, political leaders take note that the mastery of the Web is the mastery of the political game. Will it work? Repeat with me: Yes. It. Can.