If you were President is the New York Times' attempt to crown everyone Obama for a few moments. We should be so lucky. In reality, the Obama Presidency will be a singularly top-down organization in which decisions will be made by him and his highly professional and experienced staff. Resembling his tightly run campaign, Obama's administration will sell the appearance of democratization through its use of direct email campaigns, personalized text-messaging announcements and intimate flickr photo spreads, but will actually be a highly centralized marketing operation, the first digital communications Presidency of the 21st century. As Monday's Washington Post suggested:
Armed with millions of e-mail addresses and a political operation that harnessed the Internet like no campaign before it, Barack Obama will enter the White House with the opportunity to create the first truly "wired" presidency..... Obama aides and allies are preparing a major expansion of the White House communications operation, enabling them to reach out directly to the supporters they have collected over 21 months without having to go through the mainstream media.
The Post quotes Internet activist Joe Trippi, who believes that just as JFK revolutionized the art of politics through television, so Obama is about to once again turn "the art" of political communications upside down:
"He's going to be the first president to be connected in this way, directly, with millions of Americans."
But this connection between Obama and Americans will be a one-way process. The medium might be interactive, but Obama's message will be expertly calibrated to build his brand and pursue his own political agenda (one, incidently, that I generally admire and support). 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 and the death of objective journalism. This dramatic disintermediation of all the old media institutions -- all those professional journalists, editors and publishers now being laid off in their droves (here, here and here) -- offers Obama the opportunity not only to avoid the scrutiny of traditional media but to actually become that media himself.
So what will this mean, say, by 2010, when Americans begin to make sense of the Obama Presidency? Can he get away with it? Can this "wired" President manage to be both a radical democratizer and the omnipotent controller of his own message?
According to Publisher's Weekly, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter is planning to write a book that treats Obama's early days in office like an "internet start-up company". Yes and no. Obama isn't like a new media company -- he is one. Thus think of him as the political version of Google -- of brilliantly branding himself as the personification of the public good while simultaneously profiting massively from his ability to monopolize information and knowledge. And Google has got away with it, so why not Obama? Perhaps it's no coincidence that Eric Schmidt, one of the key architects of Google's brilliantly seductive messaging, is in Obama's kitchen-cabinet of economic advisors.
But let's go back to America in 2010: an America of a "major expansion" of the White House communications office, an America with a Chief Technology Officer, an America in which millions of citizens will receive a constant supply of personalized messages from their charismatic President. Is this 21st century digital democracy or is it the slickest of 21st century public relations stunts?