On the very first day of his first term, January 21, 2009, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, calling on all federal government agencies to begin mapping out how to make valuable information available online and solicit public feedback. Since then, and all the way through the past fall’s campaign, we’ve been hearing nonstop from Obama’s people about how 21st-century democracy requires using technology to enhance the . The 2012 campaign’s ease with social media—like having Obama do an AMA on Reddit, or releasing the victory Twitpic heard around the world—sometimes seemed like the lone evocation of the excitement of the first time around.
But now the administration is taking a step back from these promises. Under its We the People initiative, anyone is able to submit a petition on any topic, and if it receives enough signatures, the White House staff pledges an official response. At first, that number was 5,000. Then it rose to 25,000. But after a recent petition asking the administration to build a Death Star from Star Wars forced a (hilarious) official response, the bar now’s been raised to 100,000 signatures.
Mother Jones quoted one White House staffer as saying, "If you had told me a year and a half ago that the White House would be devoting time writing [an official statement] on how Lord Vader could fix our economic woes, I would have just laughed loudly at you." Another staffer connected with the program said: "Sometimes, I find myself thinking, 'My god, what have we done?'"
As anyone who has moderated comments on a blog can tell you, sifting quality responses from the voice of the people as it is expressed online can be quite a chore. But maybe the White House could pursue a better way of considering targeted policy proposals from the public—like deliberative polling—than the online petition, which as we can see is becoming a pretty empty form of political expression.