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Surfing Obama

He likes to watch himself

Counselors, open your appointment books: I’m finding myself missing George W. Bush in at least one respect: his Web site. Barack Obama’s version of whitehouse.gov was hyped as the Gutenberg leap of government web sites — not an exaggerated promise, considering the medieval era Obama is proposing to close. Going live one minute after noon on inauguration day, the site promised to take “advantage of the internet to play a role in shaping our country’s future” (note the lower-case “i” in internet, now all grown up). It would showcase “efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement” and “put citizens first” by focusing on “communication,” “transparency” and “participation.” Nice words.

 

So far, that’s all it’s been. The site is skimpy, self-important, more patronizing than youthful (“Your weekly address”), and nothing like the site-of-record that it was under Bush. Sure, the record is slim. But a web site in the 21 st century is what a face was for 19 th-century novelists: Personality and character is all there. You could see Bush’s petulance in that front-page link called “setting the record straight,” where the White House argued like a taxi driver with media bits it didn’t like. You only needed third-grade reading skills to catch the lies between the lines, or to catch the thuggish nature of the policies behind them (like what Bush said of thousands of suspected terrorists in his 2003 State of the Union: “Let’s put it this way: They are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.”) You could see the absolute absence of irony. Every page boasted a “Mission Accomplished” air to the last day. Bush didn’t do nuance.

Obama is supposedly all nuance, though so far the shades are still drawn. The “communication” part of his site is abbreviated and stilted, relying on the blog format to condense each day’s spin. You have to hunt for press conference transcripts, speeches, executive orders and presidential memos. The administration’s agenda is played up. I was expecting details, white papers, plans of action. But it’s still nothing more than campaign promises. Even those have been condensed. Can health care reform really be reduced to a 535-word outline — one word per member of Congress (headlines included)?

We all want a break with the past, but we shouldn’t want that past shoved out of sight as if it never existed. To the contrary. There’s accounts to be made, a history to contend with, a sense of continuity to respect. Wasn’t that the point of inaugural pomp and ceremony? Obama’s site obliterated its predecessor’s without so much as the courtesy of a link to the Bush site’s new location. As it turns out, the entirety of the Bush web site, an invaluable historical record regardless of one’s political persuasion, is preserved whole at the George W. Bush Library by way of the National Archives. But you have to know it’s there to find it (georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/). Why not a tiny link to the last eight years at the bottom of the new White House home page? Or would that interfere with the Oprah-esque self-absorption of the site?

It is the White House Web site, he is the president, you expect the place to be sheer advertisement for the man. That’s a given. But there’s something unapologetically cultish about it. Half the home page is dominated by a bloc featuring four oversize, clickable photographs and a brief summary of what you get if you want to “learn more.” I thought the feature was an opening-week sort of thing, some colorful celebration before work kicked up and the fanzine approach was replaced with a more seemly mix of substance. The flash looks permanent. One day last week the first picture featured Barack and Michelle Obama in a heap of children during their visit to a public charter school (the transcript of the event is truncated). The second picture featured Obama and Vice President Joe Biden with Commerce Secretary-designate Judd Gregg, a Republican senator (whose replacement, conveniently, will be made by a Democratic governor, which may give Democrats a 60-seat majority in the Senate).

The next two pictures startled. One showed Obama’s black silhouette against a giant color broadcast of the Superbowl. The picture is meant to be intimate, maybe artsy. It reminded me instead of all those solitary autocrats Latin American novelists wrote about the 1960s and 1970s. The fourth was pure shock: Obama speaking to the nation in a video, but the effect, unintentional or not, was of him in the White House looking at himself on a giant television screen.

Obama’s self-awareness is one of his qualities, especially in contrast with his predecessor’s indifference on that score. Obama’s self-absorption could be his undoing. The Bush years notwithstanding, presidencies are evolutions. Here’s to hoping that what we see on the current whitehouse.gov is not what we will get for the next four to eight years.

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