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Dwayne Raymond Headshot

Will We Electronically Neuter The President?

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Within the election of Mr. Obama resides the reality that he is a man who lives comfortably with his Blackberry and, because of that, inherently understands how the world now works. Clearly he is more in tune with the average American than any of his predecessors and likely those who competed with him for the job. The President-Elect values the primacy of immediate communication and its incalculable importance to not only rapidly exchanging ideas with his cabinet but, by extension, the country.

Every shift of national thinking in the past coincided with the maturity of a technological advancement. FDR embraced radio, JFK utilized television more than presidents before him, and Clinton spearheaded an economic revolution which paved the way for internet innovations to flourish. That boom set the stage for Obama to make use of, and rely upon, his PDA (Personal Data Assistant) just like many other Americans.

Case in point: My email inbox chimed yesterday to inform me that Obama's transition panel had news regarding health care. The message contained not only a letter but a video and pertinent links inviting me to learn more, investigate further and offer opinion. To my knowledge the Bush administration never initiated direct dialogue on issues via the web even though the technology was in full swing throughout their tenure. The reality is that President Bush largely disregarded the internet because he didn't comprehend its magnitude. (Or perhaps he did?) As the "decider" he was responsible for his administration not mounting a practical platform for exploiting the web and opening the door directly to ideas from the people. Conversely, all through his campaign Mr. Obama chose to communicate consistently via the internet because he grasped the power of one-on-one interfacing -- which is exactly what occurs when you see and hear someone on your phone or laptop. He recognized that to a growing faction of America the idea of suffering through edited clips on TV newscasts feels as archaic as driving a Studebaker.

Granted this method could easily morph into a dangerous spread of half truths, but one grand equalizer is that the collective who had the pluck to elect Obama is (hopefully!) judicious enough to identify any whiff of looming dishonesty. Call it parental supervision on a nationalized level. The constituency who Obama encourages to work with and for him is savvy yet cynical; they will not tolerate a deluge of pabulum devoid of legitimate ideas. In other words, they won't settle for hooey on their hand-helds or lame liturgy cluttering their laptops--not after assessing what was fed to them over the past eight years. However, as far as the new president being able to email or text-message his team in an unfettered mode via the same medium, there are serious questions to consider.

Irrefutably there is the issue of presidential privacy and the prison cell of potential comprehensive disclosure. Mr. Obama (and any other president) is obliged by law to make public any and all records of communiqué if so ordered. This is, in theory, a deterrent to one main objective of his administration; swift communication and implementation of plans. He will be wholly removed from one of his favored techniques and relegated to exchanging ideas through outdated and, arguably, inefficient methods.

Certainly a compromise could be reached to allow Mr. Obama to retain the ability to manage his presidency through electronic text when necessary. After all, the technology isn't going away. Laws and conventions of the old game must adjust to allow use of new tools by the president to effectively expedite his blueprint. There is impending detriment to having the most powerful man in the world sequestered from instant communication other than by telephone. (Then again, Nixon tapes anyone?)

Mr. Obama can still release statements directly to the nation by way of podcasts and YouTube or the White House website, but the distressing truth is that he will remain deprived of a key form of communicating with his advisers. This must change as certainly such a modification is feasible. If the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and the Military can develop secure avenues of information sharing then a system can and should be implemented to allow the president to indulge in communication exclusive of the shadowy encumberments of theoretical examination.

Understandably, if a scandal broke there would be a feeding frenzy over his personal correspondence -- perhaps correctly so -- but which scenario, really, is worse? Our president sequestered in an impervious bubble or the possibility that there would be little or no access to his electronic correspondence?

It's a curious conundrum and one likely to be debated by attorneys and the court of public opinion for some time. It is also a question that hinges largely on Mr. Obama's personal integrity and the veracity of those he seeks advice from. But while that question sorts itself out, the President-Elect will become communicationally neutered on January 20th and the progressive momentum this country requires may suffer a nasty bout with lethargy because of it.