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White House Begins Responses to 'We the People'

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, October 26 2011

When the White House announced "We the People," an online petitioning platform, activists were cautiously optimistic.

Whether the platform turns out to be a new way for average people to have a two-way conversation with the White House — on a topic of their choosing, not restricted to White House talking points — depended on how seriously administration officials take their promise to respond to any petition that passes a threshold for signatures, activists told me. That threshold started at 5,000 signatures and was raised soon afterward to 25,000.

Today, the White House has released its first response to a petition submitted through the platform. In a written response to a petition calling on the White House to forgive student loan debt, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy Roberto Rodriguez outlined President Barack Obama's plans, released yesterday, to pursue programs to lower monthly loan payments for some students and even partial debt forgiveness for others.

In the Times article, White House Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes framed those initiatives as part of a feedback loop created by We the People:

Ms. Barnes noted that over the last month, more than 30,000 people had signed a petition on the We the People platform at whitehouse.gov, asking for relief on student debt.

“It’s a message heard loud and clear,” she said.

The high cost of college and the growing debt burden of student loans have become increasingly potent political issues in recent years, high on the agenda of Occupy Wall Street and related protests across the country.

Jim Gilliam has lately been working on his online-political-tools-for-everyone startup NationBuilder, but he's a longtime online activist and Internet person. One of his experiments was White House 2, a proof-of-concept site for the way a new online presence for the White House might look and feel.

I asked him what he thought of this first response to a petition.

"Note that the NY Times piece quotes Melody Barnes about how 30k people signed the petition," Gilliam wrote to me in an email. "This is masterful."

Later in the email exchange, he explained:

It's not like Bill Daley sits down in the morning looks at the top petitions and then decides what policy will impact that, but as a means of amplifying citizen's voices, when they coincide fundamentally with what the President wants to do, it can definitely have an impact on actually getting something done. Using the will of the American people as a cudgel in the fight against Congress is something he should have done before he was even inaugurated.

In this case, an online petition gave the Obama administration some ammunition in an ongoing battle over jobs and the economy — and the opportunity to pluck an issue from the nebula of Occupy Wall Street protesters' demands. The promise of conversations outside of the White House's favorite list of topics remains unfulfilled — but it's fair to say that between this, legalizing pot and cracking down on puppy mills, all of which are among the most popular petitions right now, the administration has jumped on the issue most significant to this particular political moment. On the White House blog, administration Office of Digital Strategy Director Macon Phillips wrote today that all 77 of the petitions that have reached the petition threshold was due for a response — including, presumably, at least one answer on legalizing marijuana in the United States.

"Over the next few days, we’ll be posting even more responses," Phillips wrote.

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