Bai Hates the Internet

Matt Bai has always held a special hatred for the online left, from bloggers to the politicians who appeal to voters through blogs. As such, it’s not shocking that he writes a misleading and factually inaccurate column like the one today titled, “For Obama, Getting Message Out Online Is a Challenge.”

No, it’s not. Obama has maintained incredibly high approval ratings among Democrats through his ability to talk with them directly. His presidential campaign built a list of 13-15 million hardcore Democrats. Obama has been able to use this list to talk directly with them about his agenda, his successes, and what the opposition is saying about him. The email list – and to a lesser extent, friendly political blogs and – have enabled Obama to talk directly to Democrats, without having to rely on media filters like, say, Matt Bai. It’s no surprise that Bai is upset that he doesn’t get to be the first one to tell Democrats what they should think about Obama (note he still uses an opinion voice in his columns, so he clearly still tries to tell Dems what to think – he’s just irrelevant to the actual formation of opinions outside of the Beltway).

Take a look at Bai’s opening salvo against Obama:

Yet there’s also something oddly retro about the State of the Union address that President Obama will deliver on Tuesday — something that belongs to the last century, like compact discs and appointment television. While the speech will give Mr. Obama an opportunity to extol his record on health care and financial regulation, it may also serve to remind us of how surprisingly little he has accomplished when it comes to bringing presidential communication into the broadband age.

That’s not to say the White House isn’t trying. In fact, the president distributed a video preview of his speech to supporters over the weekend. And Mr. Obama’s advisers have scheduled a series of interactive online events for the days after the speech, his second State of the Union, highlighted by a presidential interview with questioners on YouTube.

As proof that Obama hasn’t accomplished anything online, Bai puts forward the actually new  and revolutionary use of the internet to augment the quality of presentation of the State of the Union. The White House presentation will include both additional graphics and information about the points President Obama is making in real time, as well as providing for a direct interaction between the President and the American people. How this proves Obama has “surprisingly little…accomplished” in online communication is a mystery.

Answering questions online, however, really just amounts to the same kind of televised town hall that presidents have been doing since the dawn of the broadcast era, except that now you watch it on a different kind of screen.

Both computers and TVs have screens, so obviously talking to people through a computer is just like a televised townhall.

Like his predecessors, Mr. Obama interacts from time to time with a few highly motivated voters at such events, but he has yet to find a new way to make himself accessible or compelling to the wider electorate online.

Sure, you might have only a couple hundred people in a televised townhall, but this post-SOTU broadcast online might only reach a few hundred thousand people. With both televised townhalls and internet Q&A sessions, hundreds of millions of Americans aren’t watching. Both fail in equal measures!

Bai goes on to make an assertion with absolutely zero basis in fact about the White House’s use of new media:

Even without creative steps by the White House to harness social media and other technology-driven changes in the way people receive and share information, Twitter and its ilk have come to occupy an important place in political communications.

Wrong. The White House has used Twitter to field questions from the public to be answered by the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, as well as used “Open for Questions” peer submission and voting to do the same with the President and other senior administration officials. Beyond that, the administration has used government websites like and to provide information to the American public in easy-to-digest ways that have received voluminous traffic.

Truly taking the presidency online would not only enable Mr. Obama to get his message to some voters without passing through the traditional news media, but it would also reinforce the idea of him as a generational bridge, a politician pulling American government toward modernity.

And yet, so far, Mr. Obama’s greatest online innovation as president has been to upload a lot of video (like clips of his delivering the weekly radio address, a custom that goes back to Ronald Reagan), as if the iPad were mostly just a television without the knobs.

In my work in internet politics, I’ve found that there are a lot of people who think that innovation means creating new means for humans to perceive the world. Blogging is based on the written word. Audio content can be relayed through podcasts and mp3s. Photo sites like Flickr are based on still pictures. YouTube and other web video sites are all about moving pictures. A relatively small portion of internet users even use avatar based sites like Second Life.  But short of some brilliant web developers coming up for a way for humans to interact on the web through ESP or mental telepathy, there actually isn’t some big avenue for interpersonal human communication that isn’t yet present online. Sorry Mr. Bai, but the President using web video, delivered through multiple platforms, in multiple formats, on a regular basis actually is innovative, even if Obama hasn’t beamed his weekly presidential address directly into our brains.

Bai intermittently attacks Obama for not innovating, and deftly follows it with anger at the administration realizing new ways to reach people through the internet. We saw it above with the line, “as if the iPad were mostly just a television without the knobs,” but Bai continues on.

Perhaps, though, the president’s team is over-thinking the challenge, putting too much emphasis on how to use the trendiest applications or on how to interact with voters, when what really matters is creating an authentic narrative.

There’s a nice bit of moving the goal posts going on here. Bai doesn’t actually want Obama to “[bring] presidential communication into the broadband age,” as he first wrote. He instead wants “authentic narrative,” which undoubtedly would make for better fodder for political pundits like himself. While this, at first blush, seems like a ludicrous thing for the leader of the free world to be responsible for deciphering, Bai is helpful and tells us what it means:

You can easily imagine Mr. Obama sitting in front of a keyboard at the end of a long day, briefly reflecting on the oddity of a personal encounter or on the meaning of some overlooked event, or perhaps describing what it is like to stand in the well of Congress and deliver the State of the Union address. It could be that in order to expand the reach and persuasiveness of the modern presidency, Mr. Obama simply needs to be his online self — not so much a blogger as a memoirist in chief, walking us through history in real time.

As much as I am a denizen of the internet, notably one who came to politics through blogging first and foremost, I find it hard to believe there would be a less useful use of the President’s time than maintaining a personally written blog every night, for consumption by Matt Bai and the American public. Seriously, Bai’s great idea for “authentic narrative” is the President of the United States sitting at his laptop, live blogging how he used part of his day to solve America’s problem, and the other part to blog about it. I’m sorry, but I voted for Barack Obama so he could lead the country as our President, not so he could tell me in his own voice what it was like to have a 60 minute meeting with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. For chrissakes, the man is the President of the United States and he has more important things to do than blog.

And it goes without saying, were Bai’s batshit insane vision for Presidential time allotment be realized, the moment the President was blogging while some natural disaster or terrorist attack took place, it would be fodder for both pundit and Republican assaults on the President and his irrelevant and dangerous blogging habit.

Matt Bai clearly is both unaware of what he actually thinks the President should be doing to reach Americans through the internet and unaware of what the White House is actually doing to reach Americans through the internet. If the coming bells and whistles stand out ahead of tonight’s State of the Union address, it’s because they are new and innovative, which at one point in this column was what Matt Bai said he wanted the President to be doing. In the end, beyond being an incredibly insulting assault on the hard work of the people who do new media at the White House and DNC, Bai’s piece is little more than a statement about how uncomfortable he is with the notion that powerful politicians, including the President, can talk to voters without going through pundits like Matt Bai.

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