The #Shutdown: Obama’s new bully pulpit, governing through social media


Many people have called the government shutdown a turning point. It is the end of the president’s compromising, the beginning of a split in the GOP, and somehow (simultaneously) represents both the opening and the closing of the Tea Party era. However, the long term political implications of the shutdown are far more wide-reaching. The president’s appeal to the public through Twitter signals the start of an age when social media is a not just a tool of election campaigns, but a necessary instrument of governing.

The idea of a president ruling through public pressure is not new. In 1997, Samuel Kernell wrote a book called “Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential Leadership”. Kernell argued that, in an age of divided government a president must resort to public pressure to exert control over Congress.

The growth of social media makes “going public” potentially more powerful than ever. President Obama is the fourth most popular Twitter user (and notably the only one of the top four not to have performed at the VMAs). He is followed by nearly 40 million people, many of whom are excited to rebroadcast his thoughts to a wider national and global audience. Previously this dominant social media presence has been seen as an indication of his skills as a campaigner. However, if we agree with Kernell that ability of the modern presidency to govern is reliant on the public soapbox, we see instead that the president holds a card not possessed by any of his predecessors.

Obama’s digital dominance gives him a unique avenue to generate public support. From October 1 to October 17, President Obama’s handle referenced “shutdown” or “#shutdown” 42 times. With his huge following, and the number of retweets generated, Twitter analysis tool Topsy Pro calculates potential impressions of President Obama’s 42 ‘shutdown tweets’ at over 1.7 billion. It is not an overstatement to say that if you are one of the 49 million US adults who use Twitter with even the sparsest regularity, you probably saw at least one of his tweets. Of the top ten most retweeted or replied to tweets about the shutdown, six were from the President. To put that in perspective the highest elected Republican on that list was Ted Cruz, at number 32, and the tweet in question was:

However, it was not the reach of the president’s Twitter account that mattered most; more important was the content. President Obama used Twitter to apply pressure to leading Republicans, opening a new and very public avenue of communication between the president and Congress. In the history of their accounts, the president has @referenced the speaker 21 times – 20 of these were during the shutdown.

The president has realized that, unlike a 20 second spot on cable news, Twitter creates a direct link between the call to action (send a message to Speaker Boehner) and the action itself (hitting the retweet button). This makes it perfect for “going public,” as the target has to witness the public backlash. While it is hard to measure how effective the president’s tweets were in bringing the shutdown to an end, we can see how his message was rebroadcast. The top nine most retweeted tweets that referenced @SpeakerBoehner in the past year all came during the shutdown and they all came from the president – a fact that would be hard for Boehner to ignore in his daily social media report (he’s got to have one – right?…).

This is something new – not campaigning through Twitter, but governing by Twitter. The way the president interfaces with Congress has changed, exploiting the public soapbox where he exerts true dominance. It is a warning to any and all future candidates and nominees: start building now. There will be a time soon when we see a politician’s social media following not only as a measure of popularity, but as a qualification for governing.

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