The Social President’s New Media Precedent

February 15, 2015

Selfie-sticks, aviator sunglasses, and flirty pencil sketches have not always been staples of the American presidency.  Barack Obama may be working to change that.

The 44th President recently sat down for video interviews with “new media” organizations Vox and BuzzFeed, further illustrating his administration’s commitment to reaching the 71% of young people who consume their news primarily through online outlets.

So far, no politician has come close to achieving Obama’s prowess with the internet.  In the most recent presidential contest, Obama outspent Mitt Romney on social media by a factor of 10 (while it famously took a team of 22 media strategists to approve each one of Romney tweets).  And yet, many wonder if Obama’s proclivity towards video and new media journalism goes too far.  Is Barack Obama an innovator in the field of campaign communications, utilizing diverse journalistic media to reach an increasingly disinterested electorate?  Or, as some might suggest, is he belittling his office, neglecting his presidential duties in honor of making funny faces in the mirror?

In 2008, all anyone could talk about was Obama’s “social media campaign.”  Led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, “Obama for America” hinged on activating young voters by interacting with them online.  Since the launch of his campaign, Obama has amassed nearly 100 million followers on Facebook and Twitter combined.

His YouTube advertisements have garnered billions of views, inspiring imitations and parodies by celebrities from to Bo Burnham.  In his sixth State of the Union address several weeks ago, the White House YouTube channel’s live broadcast featured infographics and pull-out-quotes arranged split-screen with the footage in an attempt to capture the fleeting attention spans of the 1.5 million viewers who watched the speech online.

In October 2012, Obama appeared on “The Daily Show” with soon-to-be-retired Jon Stewart, and this past December sat down with Stephen Colbert on one of his final episodes of “The Colbert Report.”  Last March, Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis featured the deadpan comedian of Hangover fame alternating quips back-and-forth with the Commander in Chief.  Galifianakis: “Sorry I had to cancel a few times… I had to get my great aunt some diabetes shoes.”  Obama:  “It’s no problem. You know, I have to say, when I heard that people actually watch this show, I was pretty surprised.”

And yet, people do watch these shows.  Obama’s interview with Galifianakis has accumulated nearly 10 million views, was shared on Facebook and Twitter tens of thousands of times, and was covered on nearly every major media outlet, from CNN to the New York Times.  With polls and studies revealing that one-third of Americans under 40 say satirical news programs are taking the place of traditional news outlets, these shows can often serve as the only source of information for young people.

Still, not everyone is pleased with the president’s bent toward new media.  An interview posted on the White House YouTube channel in which Obama spoke with YouTube celebrities GloZell Green, Bethany Mota, and Hank Green drew criticism from both the right and left, and left many wondering if answering questions from a woman who famously ate cereal out of a bathtub was beneath the office of the most powerful man in the world.  The President of the United States should be fielding questions from the Washington Post about Middle East strategy, not things like what superpowers he wishes he had, right?

The president’s response:  why not both?  In an interview with CNN’s “Reliable Sources” in December, the White House plugged this administration’s commitment to disseminating information on multiple media platforms.  “We don’t have an either/or strategy, we have an and-both strategy,” said outgoing senior media advisor Dan Pfeiffer, “so we’re going to do ‘Meet The Press with Chuck Todd,’ ‘The Lead with Jake Tapper,’ but we’re also going to do ‘Between Two Ferns.’”

This debate surrounding the executive’s interactions with new technologies and nontraditional media outlets is not a new one.  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of radio in his famous “Fireside Chats” was initially received as too “showbiz;” Richard Stout in The New Republic called Jimmy Carter’s “Dial-a-President” call-in radio show a “trivialization” of his office.  Perhaps Obama is simply a pioneer of a burgeoning medium.

And no one can deny that online platforms have an impact.  Most recently, after a Humans of New York feature about a 13-year-old middle-school student living in a crime-riddled Brooklyn neighborhood with his sister and single mother received major press attention, Obama invited him to the White House for a private tour.  Since then, a national campaign that sprung out of the story has raised over $1 million for the Mott Hall Bridges Middle School.

President Obama sees connecting with new media sources not a choice but a necessity.  “The Balkanization of the media means that we just don’t have a common place where we get common facts and a common world view the way we did 20, 30 years ago,” he said to Ezra Klein of Vox. “My advice to a future president is increasingly try to bypass the traditional venues that create divisions, and try to find new venues within this new media that are quirkier, less predictable.”

And at least some of the 2016 candidates seem to be heeding this advice.  Expected Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—who famously announced she would seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 via a YouTube video—is currently leading the pack of 2016 presidential hopefuls on social media, with 2.3 million people talking about her online and nearly 5.6 million total interactions according to Politico.  Among younger voters, she’s known for her sassy tweets and strong selfie game (there’s even a Tumblr devoted to it).

Looking forward, it’s unlikely that we’re going to see any return to the traditional relationship presidents of years past have had with the internet.  More presumably, as technologies continue to advance and the barriers between citizens and their elected officials shrink further, politicians will find ever-more creative ways to interact with the people who voted them into office.  Hey, Mr. President is already on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr; perhaps Yik Yaks and Snapchats from the Oval Office aren’t too far away.  #ThanksObama

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