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Obama on No. 1 Change.gov Question: Let's Punt

BY Editors | Sunday, January 11 2009

Is there any chance that the incoming Obama Administration will pay much more than passing lip service to the top policy initiatives suggested by the citizen army it mustered to suggest and rank ideas for governance on the super-hyped Change.gov site?

Today on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopolous, the host asked President-Elect Obama about the number one-ranked question from Democratic activist Bob Fertik: "Will you appoint a Special Prosecutor - ideally Patrick Fitzgerald - to independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush Administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?" Obama's answer was far from definitive - he said he was still "evaluating" the question, but was more inclined to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards." He did suggest that Attorney General designee Eric Holder would have some say in potential prosecutions.

Fertik, the founder of Democrats.com and a veteran online scuffler of national repute since the 2000 recount, wasn't pleased (as reported by Sam Stein on HuffPo):

It's absurd to talk about "upholding the Constitution" and say "no one is above the law" if you refuse to look "back" at those who have subverted the Constitution and broken the law. And you can't have one set of rules for "national security" and a different set of rules for everything else.

So if there's any hope for prosecution in Obama's answer, it is that Attorney General Eric Holder will truly be "the people's lawyer" and fully represent us by prosecuting torturers, wiretappers, and other criminals who committed their crimes from secret undisclosed locations hidden within the Bush-Cheney administration.

The dust-up over Fertik's question (in my view, an entirely fair one, very popular in the Democratic mainstream, and even among conservative libertarians outraged by the Bush excesses) clearly shows some of the first-blush limits of crowdsourcing policy in the style of the incredibly successful Obama campaign machine.

This is a topic I hope we'll address tomorrow evening at a special panel discussion in midtown Manhattan, sponsored by the New York Software Industry Association. "Government By the People, 2.0" will include the PDF's own Micah Sifry, Change.org managing editor Josh Levy, GroundReport.com CEO Rachel Sterne, and yours truly. It'll be moderated by new media veteran Howard Greenstein, president of the Harbrooke Group. [Details are here - sign up now to reserve a spot].

It's instructive to contrast the challenges of Change.gov with the similar work of Change.org, the nonprofit cause portal that is in the midst of a contest to name the top 10 policy suggestions to present to the new administration post-Inauguration. The "Ideas for Change in America" section has been a huge success for Change.org, with a similarly wide-ranging array of suggestions for Obama. Yet, I think the goals are inherently different (and I'll be interested to hear what Josh thinks about this).

Where the free-wheeling, contest-like, attention-grabbing aspects of the citizen voting seems perfect for Change.org - where it's all about building support for causes, whether the government likes it or not - it feels a lot more hollow on Change.gov.

On Change.org, if the Obama Administration swats away the top 10 list - well, it's just the beginning; indeed, it might even be a rallying point for organizers and activists. All the causes there will continue.

If Change.gov puts something to bed - as seems fairly clear with the war crimes issue, AG Holder's judgment notwithstanding - it's pretty much going to stay tucked away. Indeed, the initial tagging of Fertik's most-popular suggestion under “Previously Addressed Questions” seems highly indicative.

Sure, the Change.gov team should be proud of the outreach: they rightly brag about the involvement totals: "103,512 people submitted 76,031 questions and cast 4,713,083 votes."

But the effort still feels much more like outreach than intake; it has much more to do with keeping the powerful Obama army in the virtual field, ready when the administration needs it for Congressional battles, than about any kind of digital plebiscite on real issues.

As Jesse Lee remarked on the Change.gov blog: "We can now be confident that the success of the first round was not just about a new trick, but just a hint of the willingness of the public to permanently change the way they interact with their government. There’s plenty of room to grow."

On that last point, certainly.