The Obama presidency: 'It's the network, stupid'

A panel of political wonks attribute Obama's election to Web 2.0 and wax enthusiastic about the next administration.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

At a Web 2.0 Summit panel about politics, author John Heilemann discussed the just-ended campaign and upcoming presidency of Barack Obama with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, and political strategist Joe Trippi.

The upshot: We are in a new era of politics. It started in 2003 but really took hold in the recent campaign. As Trippi said, when it comes to both campaigns and governing, "It's the network, stupid."

L to R: Joe Trippi, Gavin Newsom, Arianna Huffington, John Heilemann Josh Lowensohn / CNET Networks

He was responding to the theme of the panel, as stated by Heilemann, that the Internet was a fundamental new force in politics for the 2008 elections. As Trippi pointed out, people spent 14.5 million hours watching Obama on YouTube. That kind of exposure on television, he said, would cost $47 million, half of what the John McCain campaign spent in total.

Huffington agreed: "Were it not for the Internet, Obama would not be president. He would not be the democratic nominee."

More than that, she continued, "The Internet has killed Karl Rove politics." Swiftboating was not possible in 2008, she said. "The truth kept intruding into peoples' living rooms. The truth is solidly mainstream." By that calculation, she maintains, Obama embodies the new center.

Gavin Newsom and Arianna Huffington: Web 2.0 makes for strange bedfellows. Josh Lowensohn/CNET Networks

Mayor Newsom was first the raise the issue of governing in this new era. He said that the Internet and social networks, create "a connection that is more useful." But, "most politicians are not there yet. It's a state of mind, and they don't get it. It's not about old or young, it's a new kind of politics."

But the panel seemed very hopeful that a citizenry connected over the Internet could help the government function. Newsom said, "Government can't solve our problems exclusively." The panel discussed using the Web for not just fund raising but to encourage citizen involvement in thorny issues, such as health care reform.

Trippi proposed a site, Mywhitehouse.gov, where "Ten to 20 million Americans" could help the administration figure it out. What was not discussed: the method of filtering out the rants, complaints, and terrible ideas that would likely swamp a public forum on a contentious issue like this.

The Internet also offers a danger to politicians. Newsom, the sole elected official on the panel, put it this way: "Everything you say, the way you say it, how you say it, it's all exposed. I have to watch myself saying now, 'I left my heart in San Francisco.' It's the end of the world as we know it. We're in a reality TV series now in politics, 24/7."

The panel used this point to discuss the transition of politics from talking points to personalities. Trippi said, "We're all human beings, that's just the way it's going to be."

He and Huffington expect that people will, on the one hand, eventually become tolerant of human moments (anger, gaffes, and so on) that any human politician may make. And more importantly, that the true nature of politicians will become known; that candidates will succeed or fail based more on what they are about than whatever soundbites they successfully push into the media sphere.

A networked political system will challenge traditional right-vs-left politics, the panelists agreed. Trippi: "The Republicans say the glass is empty. The Democrats say it is full. The bloggers say look at the damn glass, and make your own decision."

"The tools have changed," Trippi said. "It's Web 2.0. (Obama) did it due to these tools."