The Monitor's View

Obama as a grass-roots president?

It's far from clear that he could run the country the way he's running his campaign.

More than any other candidate, Barack Obama has used the power of the Internet to involve millions of people in his campaign. His bottom-up approach tapped a wellspring of money and votes. But organizing from the grass roots is one thing. Could he govern that way?

He says he wants to, if elected. "Real change doesn't begin in the halls of Washington, but on the streets of America. It doesn't happen from the top down, it happens from the bottom up," the presumed Democratic nominee told an Indiana crowd in April.

Only vigorous citizen involvement can overpower special interest groups and move dead-weight issues through Congress, Mr. Obama preaches. He and his potential White House advisers imagine mobilizing an e-army of millions with a keystroke, then steering it toward Washington on behalf of universal healthcare or reduced greenhouse gases.

This could transform the political dynamics in the capital – if an Obama presidency could actually pull it off.

The campaign promises much:

• Regular "fireside" Internet chats from a President Obama (the country just got a sample of that in his preemptive Web video announcing his reversal on public funding).

Online town-halls held by cabinet members, and important meetings of public agencies streamed live with an ability for public input – a sort of White House C-SPAN.

• Laws posted on the Web for public comment five days before Obama would be due to sign them, and federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and lobbyist contacts with officials made easily available for citizen tracking.

Obama's successful harnessing of supporters and self-forming groups in the primaries hints he just might be able to transfer this MO to governing.

Analysts estimate his e-mail list to be vast – anywhere from 3 million to 8 million. He's got roughly a million "friends" spreading the word on Facebook, the social-networking site. YouTube circulates video such as his wife's recent appearance on ABC's "The View."

But big questions remain. Presidents, for instance, have a poor track record in going over the heads of Congress. Ronald Reagan succeeded with a campaign to have Americans phone lawmakers and tell them to lower taxes, but that was an exception. George W. Bush could not do it with Social Security reform and Bill Clinton couldn't with healthcare.

Public mobilization can fail for many reasons: presidents get distracted, the public loses interest or becomes disillusioned, opponents are strong, people don't understand the president's message.

It's usually a crisis – a civil war, an economic depression – that ushers in big change. A vast majority of Americans believe the country is on the "wrong track." But does this really constitute a crisis?

At the same time, there's a reason why America has representative government and not mob rule. Direct democracy is inefficient. Would mass e-interaction bog down the White House?

Still, even Obama says he was "surprised" by how well his overall campaign message melded with the power of the Internet in running the primary race. In truth, no one really knows whether it could also work in running the country.

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