Throughout the week, new leaks and announcements about Obama's appointments have sent the talking heads into a feeding frenzy. But a New York Times article last week highlights a new staffing position that needs to be created within the Obama administration.
The article, "Lose the Blackberry? Yes He Can, Maybe" detailed that on the the day of his ascension to the presidency, Mr. Obama will have to surrender his Blackberry AND his email. The reason?
In addition to concerns about e-mail security, he faces the Presidential Records Act, which puts his correspondence in the official record and ultimately up for public review, and the threat of subpoenas. A decision has not been made on whether he could become the first e-mailing president, but aides said that seemed doubtful.
Before I get into my idea, I want to say a quick --"seriously"? I am no where near as important or on the same need-to-be-connected level as our soon-to-president, but you'd have to pry those communication tools out of my cold, dead hands before I let them go. (My husband calls me "Textor"-- an affectionate/exasperated reference to childhood villain Skeletor.) For email alone: I test much of my articulation and argument development through this one-on-one communication. It has become an essential tool for organizing staff and next steps. It is part of my trifecta for inundating others with information/news that I want them to consume (in addition to Twitter and Facebook.) Blackberries, iPhones, etc., are key to the non-stop traveler to access news, events, alerts from around the world and the web at a moment's notice. (BTW -- Obama says checking his Blackberry is his worst habit.)
And of course, let's not forget argument the derision directed at Sen. John McCain when his surrogate tried to defend his luddite boss with the desperate statement, "John McCain is aware of the Internet." In this global, networked, 24-7 world -- knowing about and actually using the Internet, is essential to running a business, much less a country.
But back to the point at hand. The New York Times article was another reminder of how cut off Presidents become to their past feeder system of information, news, personal recommendations, push back, etc... once they are in office. They no longer receive news and insights recommended by friends who know what interests them (or want to push them to look at something another way). They are filtered info by key staff (and who knows what the judgment is behind the filtering.) They also lose key local connections that they maintained as a senator or governor, where at least a minimum level of dialogue with their constituents is expected.
So-every president in modern times has had to deal with these problems. Why is this such a big deal for Obama? A couple key reasons:
1) Obama built his incredibly successful campaign on being able to hear and respond to a diversity of people across a broad swath of America. The sentiment of many is that Obama is "theirs." While people might be patient with the idea that real change is going to come in time, they won't be patient if they feel like they've lost his ear.
The community organizer in Obama knows how important it is to hear directly from the people. In community organizing, the first lesson you learn is that the people effected by the issue are most often, the experts on solutions to the problem--not the lobbyists, the think tank experts, the attorneys, or the politicians. (Hi--anyone remember predatory lending? Community organizations were calling that 8 years ago. I know, I was working on it.) He built his campaign on the tenents of organizing and his presidency should be built on the same sentiment.
2) Obama is surrounding himself with a lot of extremely smart and savvy staffers and advisers (whether you like the Clinton refugees or not -- they do have some smarts.). I know there are a broad swath of staff responsible for communicating with and keeping the president up-to-date on key issues. They write memos and recommendations for the president, but I wonder how many are directly in touch with the communities and people they are making policy recommendations on behalf of. How many of them are tapping into the progressive media as a touchstone to the debates within the liberal to progressive movement? In fact, in this time of change and ideas, it is critical to be integrating in the research, news and punditry of the progressive (and ok-some conservative) media. (As of August--this was Obama's daily news diet.)
So how do you-as President Obama-stay in touch with your incredibly complicated, important, creative, messy, diverse, passionate, potentially fickle and brilliant base?
Hire a few "Special Community Liaisons."
My (working) job description for a Special Community Liaison:
1. Develop relationships with key local and national organizations who work on xxxx (xxxx=to be determined) issue(s)
2. Meet one-on-one with staff and members of those organizations on a regular basis to discern top concerns, news, trends, and policy recommendations from those communities and interest-based groups
3. Consume 10-15 media outlets, journalists and think tanks on a daily basis who write about xxx issue to discern top concerns, news, trends, and policy recommendations.
4. Create comprehensive reports on interviews, news, that detail out the current landscape of xxx issue for President and key staff (reports can be multi-media: combining audio, video, print text).
5. Write recommendations on how the Obama administration should or could publicly and privately respond on xxx issue(s).
6. Organize one to two in-person meetings/conferences a year with Obama administration and key community groups to help both sides articulate priorities.
7. Connect noted media outlets with Obama administration staffers. Connect media and journalists to key information.
8. Integrate and use TBD approved social networking and blog tools to open up conversations around xxx issue(s) with larger constituency of Americans.
This position could be the network node of communication between Obama and the country on specific issues that will impact millions of people and the health of our nation. The information won't be instantaneous and he won't be able to hold it in the palm of his hand. But in some ways it could be even better, because Obama would be hearing directly from the people and that's something even a Blackberry can't do.