Obama Online

by Claire Murray | 12/2/08 4:36am

As one might expect from the candidate whose campaign produced scores of videos and sent more text messages than my 15-year-old sister, President-elect Barack Obama depends on his BlackBerry for basically everything. As of January 20, 2009, however, Obama will almost certainly be BlackBerry-less. This is an unfortunate casualty of our political system: In order to preserve the checks-and-balances structure of our government, the president must sacrifice the efficiency and connectedness of the Internet.

According to a Nov. 16 New York Times article, while Obama aspires to be the first president to use a laptop in the Oval Office, he will most likely be forced to give up not only his BlackBerry but also all e-mail when he is inaugurated in January. The Times reports that on the campaign trail, Obama used his BlackBerry and laptop constantly to read and respond to briefings rather than printing out all the documents. Insiders say it is unlikely that Obama will be able to receive e-mail even for read-only purposes when he becomes president.

It is hard to imagine prohibiting anyone from using e-mail in this day and age. It is not surprising, however, that there has not yet been an Internet revolution on the presidential level. George W. Bush is really the only past president to face giving up his personal e-mail account, and that was back in 2000. (If you're curious, The Times says that Bush's address was G94B@aol.com.)

First, e-mail security would obviously be a major concern, since hackers are adept at breaking through any protections.

In the case of the president, however, the complications of e-mailing have as much to do with publicizing the president's correspondence as they do with keeping out intruders. The Presidential Records Act (established in 1978 in response to the Watergate scandal) mandates that all presidential correspondence become part of the official record, which is eventually made available to the public. The nation's executive branch has not yet determined how e-mails should be handled under this requirement.

In 2007 the Associated Press reported that the White House admitted to losing an unknown number of e-mails sent on accounts sponsored by the Republican Party. Democrats suspected the Bush administration of attempting to subvert the Presidential Records Act by sending e-mails on non-governmental accounts.

Putting President Obama on the Internet would need to be a long and careful process -- but it should also be a priority. Obama is far more accustomed to the mobility afforded to him by handheld technology than Bush was, so the e-mail precedent is outdated. Plus, Obama's familiarity with current technology is one (wide) avenue through which he can govern more effectively. Using applications like text messaging and YouTube, Obama has been able to reach more people than any candidate in history.

For most of us, the Internet is so revolutionary because it enhanced our individual access to media and worldwide communication, allowing us in turn to be more independent. I am not suggesting that our president should use the Internet to communicate and make decisions more independently -- ideas, research and other support provided to a president by his advisors and Cabinet members will remain essential to effective governance. Allowing Obama to consult via BlackBerry with his aides back in Washington while he is in Iraq, however, makes sense. It is simply necessary to preserve that communication for the public record.

In Obama, many see an opportunity to redefine America's role in the lives of people both domestically and abroad. Something as trivial as a BlackBerry has helped Obama be the type of leader many Americans are looking for -- one who is constantly educating himself about the world from thousands of sources so that he can make rational, balanced decisions in the country's best interest. It is therefore important for the executive branch to find ways to ensure both connectedness and a lack of secrecy in the Obama administration. Internet communication technology will continue to evolve at breakneck speeds, so we must continue to evolve along with it in order to allow our president to be a world traveler but always reachable, and well advised but also well read.

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