President Obama’s new, personal Twitter account has been up for three days now and it’s making lots of news, good and bad.
On the good side, @POTUS (President of the United States, in case you don’t know the acronym) has attracted lots of followers. A record number, in fact: In its first five hours, it racked up 1 million follows, beating previous record holder Robert Downey Jr., who took almost a day to reach the 1 million mark.
At midday Friday, the total was still moving up quickly, at more than 2.3 million and counting.
Plus, @POTUS has sparked a lively social media public policy debate. This isn’t the first Obama-related Twitter account – he’s had one run by his political team, and another that’s an official White House entity. But this is the first of his forays into social media that’s billed as a personal effort, and as such it’s drawn lots of interest, given that social media is an intensely personal medium.
There’s a “B” side to that sort of fame, of course, and it’s a bad one. @POTUS is also drawing lots of nasty, negative comments. Many of those are personal attacks and some are racist.
A quick look on Friday revealed a tweet that asked Obama whether he would beat his wife, for instance. Another repeated a story about a Kenyan elder trying to get the US president to marry his daughter. A few used the “n” word.
Earlier in the week, a Twitter user named @jeffgulley49 sent the president’s account an image of Mr. Obama with his head in a noose, and the line “Rope for Change," according to an account in The New York Times. This earned the person behind the post, Jeff Gullickson of Minneapolis, a visit from the Secret Service.
Why this explosion of personal animus?
Well, the web can be a dark place. Social media provides just enough anonymity to convince some users it’s OK to indulge their worst impulses. Twitter can be especially raucous, the equivalent of a frontier saloon in the 1870s.
“Those kinds of images and that kind of language [are] all too common on the Internet,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Thursday.
Then there’s the fact that (surprise!) there are lots of racists in the US all too eager to try and denigrate the nation’s first African-American president. Just prior to the 2012 presidential election, an Associated Press poll survey found that a slight majority of US citizens expressed prejudice toward African-Americans, whether they were aware they were doing so or not. If true, that finding could have shaved up to five percentage points off Obama’s 2012 winning vote margin.
Some experts have questioned the methodology of the AP survey – it found a substantial number of black respondents expressing anti-black sentiment, for instance. But there’s no question that prejudice remains an enormous US problem. That’s been highlighted by reactions to a series of police killings of unarmed black men.
In December, a Gallup survey found that the percentage of Americans naming “racism” or “race relations” as the nation’s worst problem has climbed to 13 percent, the highest figure since the days of the Rodney King case in the early 1990s.
Still, most of the anger toward Obama that’s spilling onto his new Twitter account isn’t racial. It’s partisan or ideological. People tweet that he’s a “communist” or that he’s a “liar," or that he’s not fighting the Islamic State enough, or that he shouldn’t allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
That’s directed at him personally, but it also reflects the fact that voter views of the presidency have become increasingly polarized in a politically polarized age.
No longer do US chief executives draw much approval from across party lines. The Democratic and Republican parties have become increasingly ideologically cohesive as conservative southern Democrats become GOP, and moderate Northeastern and Midwestern Republicans drift in the Democratic direction.
The result has been what American University political scientist Richard Skinner calls the “partisan presidency” – leaders who depend on ideological followers for their election and to pass legislation in Congress.
This is a trend that’s been developing since Eisenhower. It’s reached new heights under George W. Bush, and now Obama.
“Both Bush and Obama were elected with hopes of unifying the country,” wrote Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones in a February analysis of this situation. “However, the opposite has happened, at least in the way Americans view the job the president is doing, with presidential evaluations more divided along party lines than ever before.
“These increasingly partisan views of presidents may have as much to do with the environment in which these presidents have governed as with their policies, given 24-hour news coverage of what they do and increasingly partisan news and opinion sources on television, in print and online,” Jones concluded.