After a feverish postelection flurry of responses in late 2012, the White House has dramatically slowed down its answers to petitions the public has filed on President Obama’s We the People website, leaving the project stumbling even as it turns into a forum for international communities to settle scores.
From parochial battles between Japanese and Korean interests to the recent violence in Ukraine, the website has taken a decidedly international flavor. Indeed, 11 of the 58 active petitions Tuesday asked the U.S. to get more deeply involved in ousting Ukraine’s leaders.
The most recent petition to shoot to the top calls for deporting Canadian singer Justin Bieber. That petition, filed last week after Mr. Bieber was arrested on charges of drunken driving in a drag race in Florida, is poised to top the 100,000 signatures needed to earn an official response.
In the final six months of 2013, just one new petition received a White House response, and that was on a relatively minor question about whether the administration would change the U.S. sanctions list to remove a Russian singer deemed to be part of organized crime. The White House recently responded to a petition asking Mr. Obama to censor late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel.
Left behind are more substantive petitions asking the federal government to make Muslim holy days official holidays or asking the president to preserve Net neutrality standards.
Billed as a way for Americans to be heard by the White House, the petitions instead have become a forum for foreign policy grievances to be aired — and with the White House taking a pick-and-choose approach to the questions it deems worthy of replies.
At of the end of 2013, more than a dozen petitions were awaiting responses even though they had the required signatures more than a year earlier.
“I think it’s a gem in the rough, but it’s definitely in the rough and it’s hard to get people to think about these issues,” said J.H. Snider, president of iSolon.
The right to petition the government is enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment. It was taken seriously in the early years of the country, when members of Congress read out petitions they received from constituents at the beginning of morning sessions.
Mr. Obama, a former community organizer who understood the power of building collective action, decided to update the practice for the 21st century and announced the We the People project in 2011. The goal was to reward Americans for organizing behind a petition, with the payoff being an official White House response.
Initially, it took 5,000 signatures to earn a White House response. That proved too easy, so officials raised the threshold to 25,000. At the beginning of Mr. Obama’s second term, the number was raised to 100,000 signatures — all of which have to be collected in the first 30 days after a petition is posted.
As of mid-December, the White House said, nearly 11 million people had registered on the petitions site. About 285,000 petitions had been filed, with a total of nearly 17 million signatures. Only about 125 of the petitions have received unique official responses.
In response to questions about whether the threshold is too high and why some petitions get answers even though they don’t have the required number of signatures, a White House official referred to blog posts on the website explaining why the threshold has been raised to 100,000 signatures.
“When we first raised the threshold — from 5,000 to 25,000 — we called it ‘a good problem to have.’ Turns out that ‘good problem’ is only getting better, so we’re making another adjustment to ensure we’re able to continue to give the most popular ideas the time they deserve,” Macon Phillips, who at the time was director of new media for the White House, wrote in a blog last year.
The 100,000-signature threshold has clearly cut the amount of work the White House has to do.