The First Telecom President

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, February 13, 2009
Feb. 12 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Considered by most historians as the greatest American President, Lincoln was also the first President to grasp the benefits and power of telecommunications.

Barack Obama has been an avid admirer of his fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln. Obama had announced his candidacy for President on Lincoln's birthday in 2007 at the Old State Capitol Building in Springfield, the location of Lincoln's "House Divided" speech. One of Obama's favorite books has been "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The books' central theme was that Lincoln had appointed most of his Presidential rivals to his cabinet, including William Seward for Secretary of State. Nearly 150 years later, Obama named Hillary Clinton to run the State Department. His connection was further solidified when Obama was sworn in as President using the same Bible Lincoln used in 1861.

There is another parallel shared by the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and the first American President of African descent. Both were "early adopters" of technology and used them frequently for political gain and to acquire information. Originally considered an unsophisticated westerner, Lincoln was fascinated with new technology (Lincoln is the only President to be granted a patent), whether it was the latest in weaponry, hot air balloons, railroads (he had paved the way for the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869) or the telegraph, which was first used in 1844.



According to Tom Wheeler's book "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails," Lincoln almost immediately saw the advantages of the telegraph. His historic debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858 crystallized his position on slavery and were carried almost instantly around the nation, paving the way for his Presidential run two years later. In Harold Holzer's book "Lincoln at Cooper Union," the Westerner traveled to New York City in February 1860 with a historic speech that solidified himself as a serious Presidential candidate. The speech contained the famous last sentence, "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

The elegant prose was not only designed to impress those in attendance at Cooper Union, but also to electrify the country via the telegraph. While in New York, Matthew Brady took several photographs (another new device) of the future President. After Lincoln was nominated, he invited his Vice Presidential choice, Hannibal Hamlin, to meet him; the time and place was decided by the telegraph. Lincoln notified his choice for Secretary of War, Simon Cameron (another rival), with a telegraph message, followed by a formal letter. Lastly, as Wheeler's book points out, Lincoln used the telegraph as a personal news service throughout the Civil War as well as an opportunity to give military strategies and suggestions to his field commanders. Lincoln's assassination was known to millions at a speed unheard of because of the telegraph.

Like Lincoln, Obama has also shown a keen interest in technology. Among Obama's campaign advisors included Eric Schmidt the CEO of Google and Chris Hughes a co-founder of Facebook. One of Obama's campaign promises was the creation of the nation's first Chief Technology Officer. The cabinet level position would ensure that the government maintains a state of the art infrastructure and increases cyber security.

During the campaign Obama welcomed new technologies unlike any of other candidates. This strategy was especially effective in reaching young voters. For example, the design of Obama's Web site was considered a major success. The Web site was easier to navigate and encouraged voters to receive more information on the candidate. Another asset was the continual updating of the site. Throughout the campaign, Obama's site had consistently more unique visitors than any of his rivals.

 Unique Visitors-TV Board chart

Besides the Web site, the Obama campaign also welcomed other aspects of the Internet. For example, Obama's social network attracted 3.5 million "friends." They optimized paid search so that anytime anyone searched for "Barack" or "Obama," the campaign Web site appeared. Obama was only one of two candidates to use online sponsored listings.

Obama's technology reached its climax in August 2008, when, according to Nielsen, 2.9 million people received, via text message, Obama's selection of Joe Biden as his running mate. Supporters were invited to text VP to 62262 to be the first to know. This was considered the single largest mobile marketing event (and not too different from what President Lincoln had done). Despite the strategy, the media had discovered of Obama's choice before the text message was sent.

Since his election, Obama's interest in technology has continued. He fought with the Secret Service to keep his BlackBerry, although it is restricted for security reasons, making him the first President to have one. His proposed economic stimulus package included a campaign promise to make high-speed Internet access available across the United States.

Technology is another similarity between Lincoln and Obama. Lincoln used and understood the telegraph as a powerful communications vehicle in the 19th century. In all likelihood, if Lincoln were campaigning and elected President in the 21st century, he would recognize the assets that modern technology would bring to him and to the country.

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