Monday, February 13, 2012

The New Realities of Being President in a Social Media Era

image via blackenterprise

There are two powerful forces in American politics -- one altogether new, one so old as to be considered ancient -- that this blogger worries may force a sitting American President to act in a way that is not in keeping with the American interest.
One, rather old, are the electoral realities and the heckling from the right that we have come to expect in the run-up to elections in democracies. It is a force as old as human beings being politikon zoon, the voices of the ambitious auditioning for the role of Commander in Chief forcing the current occupant of that office into unfamiliar zones. Cable TV and blogs attracted to page views and the sorry state of traditional gatekeepers in an environment of hyperpartisanship not seen in anyone's lifetime makes for a particularly dangerous moment for our democracy. And the seemingly endless debates throughout late fall and winter have arguably moved Obama towards a more Asia-centric foreign policy realignment; they have arguably pushed Obama closer to a near unquestioning support of Israel's position vis-a-vis Iran; they have arguably made Obama embrace the progressive left in a way that he hasn't thus far in his Presidency. Obama, it would appear to this blogger at least, has been significantly moved by the hecklin from the right.

Granted, the President spent 2011 -- or most of it at least -- supinely holding the proverbial olive branch out to the Republican Congress as a result of the "shellacking" he received in the mid-term election, largely a result of high unemployment and a perceived government overreach on health care. That strategy -- peacemaking with the right -- turned out to be a big goose-egg as Boehner, McConnell, Cantor and the Tea Party caucus spent last year essentially doing their very best to make Obama a one-term President, assuring hi agenda would fail in Congress. That is the first force that is pulling the President into dark waters.

The second force, quite new, is social media backlash. The President, who used social media in innovative ways in 2008 to win the election, is clearly not unaware of its importance. In an interview with Entrepeneur, Macon Phillips, the White House Director of New Media said:

Just after the president gave his speech on the nation's state of the union, we held a series of Twitter Q&A sessions with more than 30 senior administration officials. We were able to do that because Twitter is a much more conversational medium. Facebook, rather, is a better place for sharing rich content. We see that people regularly share our 'photos of the day' and videos on Facebook.

Charmed, I'm sure. Social media truly grew up in February, which we cannot fail to note included a little event called the Superbowl, the largest social tv event ever. Only in the last few weeks, however, have we even begun to see what some might call the terrible typhonic force of this power. Two recent political events: 1) the backlash on the Komen Planned Parenthood decision, and, 2) the SOPA backlash loom large politically. Those two events have clearly rattled the White House, or at least has forced the administration to respond briskly to events on the ground in ways that a White House has never quite done so before. One might argue that the flubbing of the contraceptive issue by the Obama administration -- a rare strategic mistake that may ultimately have cost them essential Pennsylvania -- was a political misread of the social media backlash on Komen.

On The Contenders to the Throne

Mitt, surging Rick and the extraordinarily ill-tempered (and soon to be disintegrating) Newt are the last standing survivors in the GOP primary process. Oh yes, there is Ron Paul, but everyone knows the libertarian won't be the next President and won't do the third party thing that would doom his son's future chances of advancement in the Republican party. Further, Ron Paul's attacks against the President have been muted, perhaps not insignificantly because of the murky question of authorship (did he or didn't he?) of racist passages in his newsletter years ago.

Romney, the presumptive frontrunner, is also not entirely immune to the forces of electoral realities. As Jonathan Chait observes:
"One of the stickier dilemmas awaiting Mitt Romney’s campaign is the intersection between his personal wealth and his economic program. Romney is a very rich guy who enjoys a low tax rate, which is a political problem. Combine that with his tax plan, which locks in the Bush tax cuts and then cuts taxes even more, you have a ready-made political theme for the Obama campaign to deploy against him should he win the nomination.
At the same time, Romney has not wrapped up the nomination. And conservative elites are saying that his plan doesn’t go far enough in cutting taxes for himself and his economic peers. So Romney is pulled between two competing forces — Republican supply-siders who want him to cut taxes for the rich even more, and general election swing voters who not only don’t want to cut taxes for the rich at all but think they need to go higher."
Clearly the President is not alone in having to navigate against forces that would countervail his agenda. Such is the nature of compromise -- of being in the center -- a zone that all Presidents seek to occupy. Romney's hard line on, say, immigration, or on, say, opposing the Michigan auto bailout may cost him dearly in the general election -- should he eventually get there -- but were, perhaps, quite necessary to bring over enough of the base to win the primaries. Tack towards the base in the primary, move to the center in the general election and in ones Presidency -- American Politics 101, right?


These two forces -- the heckling on the right and social media backlash -- are influenced by the new normalcy of the speed of American Presidential politics. The 24/7 news cycle and hyperpartisanship on both sides of the aisle has created a political arena where candidates and the President must respond, at a moment's notice, effectively to charges made on blogs, on microblogs and in social media. The temptations of a sitting President to rearrange one's public policy at a moments notice to respond to charges in the social media space are incredibly dangerous.

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