In 2008, President Obama refashioned American politics for a more digital age, leveraging the Internet to both engage volunteers and raise money in a novel and unprecedented manner. Once in Office, he became the first Commander in Chief to deploy a Blackberry (still a Blackberry?) and his inaugural Open Government Directive spawned groundbreaking and wide-ranging initiatives in online reporting (most notably recovery.gov) and infrastructure refurbishment only now beginning to take root.
Looking ahead, and taking stock of the 2012 campaign, President Obama’s continued digital impetus and the potential consequences of a second term require some distinction between politics and administration. Whereas the latter is managerial and increasingly premised on new working relationships with an evolving set of technology industries, competitive but on the whole supportive of IT renewal, the former involves a citizenry that is arguably more sharply divided than ever, with technology’s role far more opaque.
A divided electorate is an important derivative of President Obama’s first term, standing in contrast to his lofty 2008 aspirations for post-partisan renewal. The President’s 2008 message paradoxically resulted in Democratic control of the Congress for two short-lived years that saw key measures such as stimulus spending and health care reforms pass along ever-deepening partisan lines. The Republicans would thus extract a measure of revenge in 2010, cementing gridlock to the present day and giving rise to the perilous “fiscal cliff.”
It is noteworthy, then, that the successful 2012 re-election effort was characterized more for turning out Democratic-leaning voters than persuading independents or Republicans to join the cause. The potential for gridlock remains, especially when exit polls reveal that more than one half of Americans view government as over-extended.
In a similar vein, the Obama technology effort in 2012 became much more top-down and sophisticated than the 2008 variant, a true 21st century data-mining system now the focus of all partisan operatives the world-over. In such a world, branding and micro-targeting matter far more than detailed policy discussions. Above all else, there is money. President Obama’s 2008 declining of public financing coupled with more recent Supreme Court decisions opened the flood gates to an estimated $6 billion of campaign spending.
Fueled by such seemingly limitless resources, television spending remained predominant. Yet the impacts of new media also sharpened. Whereas television ads were primarily about damaging the other side’s brand, social media became pivotal to identifying and motivating would-be supporters: a source of engagement for partisans but disillusioning for many. Accordingly, fewer Americans voted in 2012 than in the previous two Presidential contests.
With politics already in disrepute, its virtualization may also give rise to more sinister and subversive traits. In a largely favourable review of the President’ digital apparatus, two commentators on TechPresident also caution: “The Obama campaign’s targeting operation may seem to hint at an Orwellian political future where individual citizens are helpless before a class of elite manipulators, pandering to their every stated preference.”
In a campaign dominated by a sluggish domestic economy, then, President Obama successfully targeted the middle class and won just enough of them, especially in a small subset of so-called swing States, to thwart Republican efforts. The awkward result is a more partisan and polarizing President at a time when all pundits agree that compromise is more essential than ever.
The peculiar response by many Obama supporters is that a second term President is now empowered to make deals, no longer concerned with re-election (with their pesky legislature closed and an outgoing Premier making far-reaching deals, Ontarians can relate…). An ironic twist, then, that a more partisan campaign in 2012 may yet yield a more collaborative President of the sort promised in 2008.
Gone, however, are lofty aspirations for widened public engagement and institutional renewal. Indeed, in one unusually unscripted moment during the campaign, President Obama offered up his main lesson learned from a bruising first term, namely that you cannot change Washington from the inside…
Such a stunning admission from the ultimate insider signals pragmatism as the core principle of governing. Yet it also underscores a growing rift between how Americans elect their leaders and their expectations for governance. Such is the over-riding challenge of an Obama second term and further evidence that the digitalization of media and politics is by no means a natural pathway to more inclusive and collaborative democracy.
Jeffrey Roy is professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).