The White House's new Web site is a big change
Despite entering a White House full of antiquated computer hardware and software (deputy press secretary Bill Burton put it this way, "It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari"), Barack Obama's new-media team had an Obamafied whitehouse.gov up and running moments after he was sworn in as our nation's 44th president.
The site's first blog post, written by Macon Phillips, Obama's director of new media, promised that the new whitehouse.gov would provide timely and in-depth content, a new level of transparency in government, and the opportunity for average Americans to make their voices heard.
Promises, promises. They're a dime a dozen in D.C. So is Obama's whitehouse.gov all that it promises to be? And how does it compare to the whitehouse.gov that we saw under Bush's administration? (Some cried foul when the old content disappeared but it has since been archived for posterity on Bush's presidential library site.)
We nominated a
trio of politically attuned, new-media-savvy types to share their opinions:
Gene Lewis, a partner-creative director at Digital Pulp, has created Web sites for clients including the Clinton Global Initiative, George Soros' Open Society Institute and Harvard University's Institute of Politics;
Andrew Rasiej is founder of Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference and Web site covering the intersection of politics and technology, and cofounder of techpresident.com, a group blog that monitors how presidential campaigns use the Web; and Patrick Ruffini served as Webmaster of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign site and is now a partner at Engage, which guides the online strategy of Republican political candidates.
OMMA: How does Obama's whitehouse.gov compare to the Bush administration's site?
Lewis: Obama is probably the first president who has come into office with the Net completely mainstream. Bush could have taken advantage of it had he chosen to, but I think his mentality and his administration was much more about a closed-wall approach, a much more private leadership vs. an open democracy. So, I think, given the technology that's available, the way that people use the Web today, and the willingness of Obama to have an open administration, this kind of whitehouse.gov is a first. It's not done out of necessity, it's done through an eagerness to continue the conversation.
Rasiej: It is clearly more interactive and forward-leaning. The Bush whitehouse.gov was much more brochureware, and this whitehouse.gov is obviously aware of the state of the art of the Internet.
Ruffini: From a content perspective, I thought for whatever its faults, however Web 1.0 it was, the Bush site actually did a pretty a good job of getting information out and organizing information pretty well. You were able to find stuff easier than you can on this site. This one is sort of like Obama. It has a lot of polish, it's smooth, and it looks good. The question is: If you dig deep - as a Republican, I'll say this - if you dig deep, is there a lot of substance there? I think time will tell.
OMMA: How does this site fare in terms of providing meaningful information to the public?
Ruffini: There was a lot of hype about, "We're going to post bills for five days before they become law," and they haven't really done that. They'll post a bill before Congress makes any last-minute changes. They're trying to weasel out of that promise.
OMMA: How about the level of interactivity?
Rasiej: It hasn't yet incorporated all of the best interactive tools that the Web offers, and I'm not sure that it should, because the main purpose of whitehouse.gov is to communicate the president's vision and voice to the American public.
Ruffini: The site is certainly a step in the right direction in terms of interactivity and new media, but it's probably nowhere near what [Obama] did during the campaign or even during the transition, due somewhat to politics, but also somewhat to some of the rules that exist regarding the federal government.
OMMA: Right after the Super Bowl, Obama's whitehouse.gov featured a picture of the president watching the big game. How do you feel about intimate, behind-the-scenes images that don't have anything to do with politics being on the site?
Lewis: I think having features like "Here's the president watching the Super Bowl" can be a bit risky. It's more of a marketing image than a presidential image.
Ruffini: I thought that was a nice touch. I think this site has the opportunity - any White House site has the opportunity - to go behind the scenes.
OMMA: Bush's whitehouse.gov used video to showcase presidential events. Might the Obama whitehouse.gov benefit from more use of video?
Ruffini: [Obama] did video documentaries very well during the campaign. I'm interested to see that done now that he's in the White House. They could do a package of the president in meetings on noncontroversial subjects, edit them so you're not giving away any sensitive information, and run them later, really going behind the scenes. Something like that doesn't happen overnight, but I'd be interested to see them do it, given how well they did it during the election.
OMMA: Obama has carried over the look and feel from his campaign and transitional sites to whitehouse.gov. Does that serve whitehouse.gov well?
Lewis: It does. The original Obama campaign site worked for people because it was incredibly simple. It followed the old Web adage, when in doubt, make it simpler. He has also made this site very easy to use. It feels familiar to the people who voted for him and, hopefully, it'll work for those Americans who didn't vote for him.
OMMA: Bridging the gap has to be one of the biggest challenges for Obama. Can he use whitehouse.gov as a tool to do that?
Basiej: Now he has to acknowledge and validate the voices of people who aren't Democrats, and it remains to be seen whether he can build that same robust sense of connectedness that he did during the campaign. He's got to walk a fine line between using whitehouse.gov to articulate his views as president without being overly partisan, and at the same time give people the sense that they're part of the process.