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.
In the final 11 months of 2013, just 20 petitions earned enough signatures to get responses and half remained unanswered as of the new year.
Still, plenty of backers say the project has great potential and praise the White House for its willingness to try to work through the problems.
Nicco Mele, who studies social media as an adjunct lecturer at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said the White House deserves credit for sticking with the system. He said he groaned early on when the White House opened itself to questions, which were dominated by inquiries about marijuana legalization.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, there it goes. They’re never going to try anything like this again,’” he said.
Instead, the White House has kept working to try to strike a balance and is sticking with the petition program even though the payoff is not clear.
“I think that’s great,” Mr. Mele said. “I think that’s evidence they’re trying to figure out how to build a tool that’s responsive, that’s useful. I pretty unequivocally give them a lot of credit for it.”
Matt Loff, co-founder of Visionist Inc., who has looked at the locations of people signing the petitions, said they have been strikingly bipartisan. He took part in the White House’s “hackathon” last year, which gave programmers and tech specialists a chance to manipulate data on the We the People site. Mr. Loff built a tool to track the political leanings of people who sign the petitions by tracking their ZIP codes.
“I ended up a little less cynical than when I started,” he said. “Initially, I figured there are obviously a lot of polarizing issues brought up on the petition site. My expectation was every issue would have a clear slant to it, people who signed petitions would be all from red states or blue states depending on topic. What I found is of the issues with responses outside one particular region, most had a balance between the two.”
The White House has said the goal isn’t to change its policies, but to give people a chance to organize around common interests.
Mr. Snider said the White House should be more forthcoming about sharing information if that is the case. Right now, it gives out only the initials and locations of petition signers. Mr. Snider said petition organizers should get email addresses as well.
“You’ve got 30 days to get through this incredible hurdle and you don’t get the benefit — the White House gets the benefit, not you,” he said.
Mr. Snider said he would lower the threshold it takes to earn a response and try to make the responses more — well, responsive.
“It’s nice that they promise a response, but they’re not going to say anything controversial for the most part,” he said.
The White House has taken a firm line in some of its responses. Replying to a petition alleging voter fraud in Mr. Obama’s 2012 election victory and in one Ohio county in particular, the White House disputed the petition’s numbers and pleaded for common ground.
“You don’t have to support President Obama or his vision for this country. But you have to acknowledge that all Americans, even those with whom you disagree, have the right to help to set our nation’s course,” the White House said. “That’s a truth that unites us all as citizens, and it sets up a basic agreement — one that makes us an example for other nations, which justifies our democratic experiment: the understanding that the elections we lose are still legitimate.”
But more often, the White House response amounts to a thank-you to those who signed and a restatement of long-held administration viewpoints.
One major exception was a 2012 petition asking for the recipe to Mr. Obama’s home-brewed honey ale. White House assistant chef Sam Kass responded with recipes for the honey ale and honey porter.
“Like many home brewers who add secret ingredients to make their beer unique, all of our brews have honey that we tapped from the first ever bee-hive on the South Lawn,” Mr. Kass wrote. “The honey gives the beer a rich aroma and a nice finish but it doesn’t sweeten it.”