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Obama online petition site: Direct democracy or empty gesture?
We, the People have spoken. We have shouted from the rooftops, typed from our desktops, clicked from our laptops. We have visited the official White House petition website — nearly 3 million of us, to be precise — and exercised our First Amendment right to let our duly (and newly) re-elected President Barack Obama know exactly what we would like the federal government to accomplish, including and in no particular order:
1. Deport television talk host and British national Piers Morgan;
2. Formally acknowledge that space aliens are real, and have walked — probed? — among us;
3. Create a reality television series starring Vice President Joe Biden;
5. Begin construction of a real-life Death Star by 2016.
If all of the above sounds remarkably weird — well, except the Mr. Biden show, which sounds long-overdue — that’s because we’re a little weird ourselves. At least when it comes to our various, put-it-in-writing desires for federal action.
Since September of 2011, the Obama administration has invited the public to petition the government at a “We the People” area of the official White House website, promising that when a petition receives enough support — currently 25,000 electronic signatures within a 30-day window — Mr. Obama’s staff will review the request, send it to the appropriate policy experts and issue an official response.
Many of the resulting petitions have been predictable offshoots of longtime national-level policy debates, such as abolishing the Transportation Security Administration, establishing a flat tax and legalizing marijuana.
Others, however, are more eclectic.
Want to let the city of El Paso secede from Texas and become part of New Mexico? There’s a petition for that. Want to give everyone in the country the opportunity to punch anti-tax activist Grover Norquist between the legs, once and only once? There’s a petition for that, too.
Macon Phillips, the White House director of digital strategy, has said that requests posted on the site have had a real and direct impact on administration policymaking, most notably in the case of two petitions concerning online piracy laws.
By contrast, information technology and democracy scholar J.H. Snider said that the site’s civic usefulness has yet to be proven.
“The issues that the administration has really touted and said, ‘We have passed legislation from this’ were all things like student loans and the Newtown shootings, things that were already on the public agenda with Congress introducing bills,” said Mr. Snider, president of the nonprofit public policy institute iSolon.org and a fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “So the question is, did the petition website really make a difference? Or is it just being used to suggest that the administration is open to public participation and that they respond to it because that’s an appealing message?”
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About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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