national, politics, obama
Chuck Burton/AP
Amanda Raflo watches the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama online while studying at
a coffee shop in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009.

Obama’s MLK Day Call to Service Hints at Mailing List Potential

January 21, 2009 01:31 PM
by Christopher Coats
Equipped with an e-mail list of millions of campaign supporters, President Barack Obama called on supporters to seek out public service projects across the country, suggesting he would continue to use the database in Washington.

Politics 2.0

Ending his campaign with over 13 million e-mail addresses, a million signed up to receive text updates, 2 million members of MyBarackObama.com and 5 million supporters registered through assorted social networks, Obama has hinted at his network’s possible political and public service uses.

“The Internet is an amazing tool to organize people,” Obama said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We saw that in the campaign, but we don't want to use it just in elections. We want to use it to rebuild America.”

Although the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service has been observed since being passed by Congress in 1994, the number of volunteers who turned out this year was the highest ever, doubling its most productive year.

According to a Los Angeles Times report, there is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort, tentatively called Barack Obama 2.0, to retool the president’s vast online network into a functional organization that could be called upon when needed, and would operate in the middle ground between the White House and the Democratic National Committee.

In addition to using the collection of contacts to promote public service projects, media analysts have also spotlighted how it could be used to shore up support when it comes to passing legislation by lobbying lawmakers.

Reflecting the network’s potential as an organizational and policy tool, a recent study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that over 60 percent of registered users would be eager to pass on messages distributed through the system.

Further, a quarter of respondents said they would work actively online to help with administration efforts.

However, it remains unclear how the Obama White House will use the database and whether they will pass the content into the hands of the Democratic National Committee and its new chairman, former Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.

In the run up to Inauguration Day, the Obama camp used the database to inform interested supporters about public service projects across the country, as well as to allow individual organizers to post their own efforts to a national system.

The national system, called USA Service, was launched on Jan. 9, and is the president’s attempt at applying the organizational technology developed during the campaign to organizing future public service efforts.

Further, the transition team used the list to distribute information about the day’s events and launch a tool allowing users to submit suggestions and questions to the administration.

In the days leading up to the MLK Day of Service, supporters who had signed up for the president’s text messaging service began receiving SMS appeals to volunteer and seek out projects across the country.

Context: Embracing technology as a tool

Obama’s continued use of his campaign e-mail list reflects the new administration’s embracement of technology and how it can be used to organize and mobilize supporters.
Calling Obama’s the Wired Presidency, Wired magazine noted the campaign’s early adoption of social networking and online communities to help drive support and call voters to action at a rapid pace. However, citing the absence of comments and response videos on the President’s inaugural YouTube address, the magazine notes that the administration still faces obstacles when trying to bridge traditional government with advancing technology.

Reaction: Not everyone on board

Although coverage of the continued use of the database has been largely positive, some have grown wary of the e-mail appeals for information, fundraising and merchandise.

Simon Rosenberg, founder of NDN, a left-leaning think tank, said not everyone on the list would consider helping the Democratic Party as equivalent to helping Obama; an individual may still want to get involved in the new administration, but “just as a citizen, regardless of their political party, who’ll want to help potentially on a single issue.”

Related Topic: Public service pledges

Throughout his campaign, Obama made a series of pledges suggesting an administration-wide expansion of public service efforts, including the creation of new projects such as a Civilian Assistance Corps, a Green Energy Corps, an Artists Corps and a Youth Service Corps.

He also pledged to expand existing programs, including doubling Peace Corps by 2011, expanding the YouthBuild program as well as Senior Corps. Politifact has kept a running analysis of the progress achieved for each pledge.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines