- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

It has not taken President-elect Barack Obama long to learn what his predecessors quickly discovered — his new job is a gilded cage.

Or, as Harry Truman nicknamed the White House in a bitter diary entry, a “great white jail.”

Truman enjoyed taking long walks near the White House. Mr. Obama similarly bristles uncomfortably inside of the bubble of security and executive power that envelops him wherever he goes. Like an Internet-age Truman, Mr. Obama is pushing back. He wants to keep his BlackBerry.

In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters last week, he talked about the importance of breaking through the isolation faced by presidents. The trouble is, he wants to keep his BlackBerry, despite government concerns about security and recordkeeping rules.

”I’m negotiating to figure out how can I get information from outside of the 10 or 12 people who surround my office in the White House,” Mr. Obama told Miss Walters. “Because, one of the worst things I think that could happen to a president is losing touch with what people are going through day to day.”

Well, yeah. In fact, losing touch is a thing bad enough to lead to even worse things for a president like, for example, losing re-election.

Even so, I think Mr. Obama might be better off without his BlackBerry. His wish to stay in touch with voices outside his “bubble” is admirable. But the tricky irony of the BlackBerry, a handy tool for staying in touch, is in how much the little gadget also isolates us.

In fact, as a longtime user of cell phones and portable e-mail devices, I suspect handhelds are popular partly because they do such a good job of helping us to lose touch with the people around us.

Handhelds help us communicate with our social and professional contacts. That effectively expands our echo chamber of people who think pretty much the way we do, while shrinking our interaction with people who don’t, whether we want to hear them or not.

If you really don’t want to know, for example, what the guy standing next to you in the line at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts is going through from day to day, just pull out a BlackBerry, take a glance, and say, “Oh, excuse me, I’ve got to holler back at this message.”

No wonder “CrackBerry” addiction is reported to be an epidemic. “Reality,” an old hippie-era bumper sticker declares, “is for people who can’t handle drugs.” BlackBerrys, I would argue, are great for people who don’t want to handle too much reality.

I suspect our incoming president may suffer a CrackBerry jones. If so, I sympathize. He already has admitted to falling “off the wagon” a few times in his well-known quest to quit smoking. It’s hard enough to quit smoking and keep your weight down. It’s probably even harder to quit smoking and quit your CrackBerry, too.

The government has different concerns. The biggest arguments against Mr. Obama’s handheld gadget concern security and accountability. But those challenges can be solved by intelligent people, and they should put their minds to it.

E-mail has been secured well enough for the Pentagon to use. Why not the president? The real problem for the incoming administration to think about is the sloppy protection of everyone’s private data in the civilian world. Mr. Obama need look no further for evidence than the scandalous reports that his own mobile call data, stored by his mobile phone company, were accessed by Verizon employees.

Another concern is the Presidential Records Act, which requires storage of all White House correspondence as part of the official record. That includes e-messages that the nation’s e-mailer-in-chief might thumb-tap on his BlackBerry. But that law probably could be accommodated simply by storing the president’s handheld e-mails on the server and filing them later with his other mail.

It seems rather preposterous that Mr. Obama, the candidate who ran the most technologically sophisticated campaign in history, would now be restricted by outdated laws or outdated government security technology from using mobile technologies.

But if he wants to stay in touch with real people outside his narrow circle of contacts, he should consider going cold turkey on his handheld. Besides, if his addiction comes on too strong, he can always borrow one.

(Psst, hey, buddy. Can I bum a BlackBerry?

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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