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Kate Southwood

Kate Southwood

Posted January 30, 2009 | 10:17 AM (EST)

Obama on my Lap(top)


Is Barack Obama the new Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Sure, why not? It's tempting -- and probably inevitable -- to rack up the similarities: Roosevelt was also a Democrat who followed a Republican with a bad record, and he had to mop up a financial crisis he inherited from his predecessor while reassuring the entire nation and mobilizing it to rebuild itself. But the most staggering similarity is this: Obama, like Roosevelt, understands -- in the first days of his presidency -- how to best use mass media to reach individual citizens and promote his policies.

President Roosevelt broadcast thirty "Fireside Chats" over eleven years in the White House. He understood the potential of radio, a relatively new electronic medium that had broken the news monopoly formerly held by print media. His broadcasts were a huge success, and drew more listeners than the most popular commercial radio programs. His first broadcast, made only eight days after his inauguration, addressed the banking crisis of 1933. By speaking on the radio, Roosevelt chose the most intimate and immediate means available of explaining the situation that had been created by a rush on the nation's banks, as well as the steps he and Congress had taken to rectify it.

Americans heard his voice in their living rooms: "We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail."

Barack Obama did Roosevelt one better: he began broadcasting his weekly addresses last November, as president-elect, and rather than continue to address the nation on the long-familiar radio as George W. Bush had done, Obama appeared on the Internet.

We are still in the earliest days of the Obama administration, but his use of the Internet indicates not only political savvy and an understanding of the Internet's vast power, it suggests a crucial understanding of how Roosevelt succeeded. Something arguably more important than mere historical knowledge that he succeeded.

By making his address available on the Internet (at whitehouse.gov, followed by the inevitable jump to YouTube), Obama has signaled a change as revolutionary as Roosevelt's choosing voice transmission over the printed word.

Sure, we've all heard past presidential addresses on TV. We've all seen Obama now and know the sound of his voice. But Obama on TV or the radio is not Obama on YouTube: he can talk to us in our homes any time, as often as we like, anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. He can look us in the eye, explain the current situation and his plans to change it.

Like Roosevelt before him, Obama understands that he must rebuild trust between the government and the American people. But it goes beyond that: he also understands that, with the Internet, he is reaching people outside the US as well, where confidence has also been diminished.

It's clear that Obama has internalized Roosevelt's media genius in his relationship with the American people, but he's done even Roosevelt's transparency one better with recovery.gov, a website under construction that is intended to increase accountability as a window on government spending.

Perhaps it's tempting to compare Presidents Obama and Roosevelt because there is so much at stake, and because Roosevelt succeeded when the situation was even worse. Viewing Obama as Roosevelt's heir creates hope. Time will show whether this is false hope, but there is more than mere reverberation in Obama's first address: "...if we act as citizens and not partisans and begin again the work of remaking America, then I have faith that we will emerge from this trying time even stronger and more prosperous than we were before."