White House Website Politicization

I was struck by the degree to which WhiteHouse.gov looks like an Obama campaign site.

I went to the White House website at whitehouse.gov to see what President Obama had to say about Hurricane Sandy in his 1245 address. I was struck by the degree to which it looked like a campaign site.

We’re immediately hit with “President Obama is working to build a country and an economy where we reward hard work, value fairness, and hold everyone accountable for what they do.” Later, we get “Protecting the American People with New Wall Street Reforms.”

Contrast this with the most recent comparable, the October 29, 2004 site of President George W. Bush:

Or, less comparably (since Bush wasn’t running again) the October 29, 2008 site:

Some of this is just the evolution of the Web. Organizations used to view their sites as bulletin boards, whereas now they see them as a central part of their communications strategy. Still, it strikes me as a bit unseemly for a taxpayer-funded site to be so brazenly political.

UPDATE: I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at this, given that the Obama team politicized the site from Day 1. Literally.  See my January 20, 2009 post “Whitehouse.gov Gets Makeover,”  which asked, “Why does it look like his campaign website just changed URLs?” Or my January 21, 2009 follow-up,  ”Whitehouse.gov Gets Makeover II,” noting the propaganda included, “President Obama will keep the broken promises made by President Bush to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. He and Vice President Biden will take steps to ensure that the federal government will never again allow such catastrophic failures in emergency planning and response to occur,” to which I responded, “This is unseemly.  He’s president now, not a political candidate or even president-elect.  This sort of nonsense does not belong on the people’s website.”

Also, back in May, in “History as Propaganda,” Doug noted that the administration had gone so far as editing the bios of the previous presidents to use as fodder for advancing President Obama’s agenda.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Quick Takes, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    “Still, it strikes me as a bit unseemly for a taxpayer-funded site to be so brazenly political.”

    Heh, clearly you don’t visit a lot of Congressional and Senate sites.

  2. mattb says:

    I guess it’s an issue of implicit versus explicit, and as you put it, revisions in design.

    While the 2004 page has more of a news/grid layout, the ordering and imagery is pretty political as well. Just looking “above the fold,” I’m immediately struck by the photo of the day — Bush jogging with a disabled war vet. That’s a pretty pro-Bush image that strikes a lot of chords all at once.

    Then you have the news items — “Veterans Issues” as the first major item (and we should remember that a lot of the election was about who would be a better War president and the issue of the Military experience of the two candidates). The third above the fold item is a Hispanic/Lantino Small Business Representative (check off a few more key campaign constituencies and markets there).

    And below the fold we have a reminder that Bush is “Waging and Winning the War of Terror” (keeping us all safe).

  3. wr says:

    @mattb: Yes, but Bush was a Republican, so it was completely different.

  4. Rick Almeida says:

    I was struck by the degree to which it looked like a campaign site.

    I am consistently struck by how easily James’ sensibilities are ruffled by Democrats.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Alex Knapp: I agree the congressional sites are often even more brazenly political. I don’t see them as the same thing, though, as the White House site. The former strike me as personal web pages, the latter as our web page. That may be a silly distinction.

    @mattb: @wr: @Rick Almeida: I think it’s pretty brazen, actually, although mostly just a function of being a completely different conception of what the White House website is for. Team Bush saw it as a chronicling of the presidency; Team Obama sees it as the leading edge of getting Team Obama’s message out.

  6. homerhk says:

    It’s also a fact that President Obama has been going on about fairness, an economy built to last etc for a lot longer than the campaign. Faux outrage is faux – whodathunk?

  7. Vast Variety says:

    I’d actually be more surprised if it wasn’t politized.

  8. Rick Almeida says:

    @James Joyner:

    Team Bush saw it as a chronicling of the presidency; Team Obama sees it as the leading edge of getting Team Obama’s message out.

    Do you base this inisght on your deep, inside access to the administrations?

  9. mattb says:

    @James Joyner:Two points… Web design (as a whole) and the focus on the Web on the part of the White House has changed significantly in the last eight years. I suspect that if you were to see that 2004 updated with a current web design aesthetic, it would appear much more “campaign-ie” (i.e. polished and putting the work of the president front and center). Likewise, should Romney win, I expect that the general informational weighting of WhiteHouse.gov will remain the same.

    Team Obama sees it as the leading edge of getting Team Obama’s message out.

    I’ve met people from the WH webteam a few private conferences. And while it’s true that Team Obama does see it as a messaging platform*, it’s more accurate to say they more broadly see it as an outreach and engagement platform. And while some of that is touting the presidents accomplishments (which was also going on in the 2004 page), they have a lot of other interesting initiative going on via the site. Of particular interest for a number of folks is their developer relations page — http://www.whitehouse.gov/developers

    That’s one example of how the overall role of the WH website as a platform is continuing to evolve. Should Romney win, it will be interesting to see if his administration will continue those efforts.

    * – Again, I think you’er over emphasizing the “chronicling strategy” for the Bush White House. How many of those front page items in 2004 were about simply “chronicling”.

  10. Mike says:

    For those criticizing, I’d be interested to hear a specific answer to the question, “What content SHOULD be on the White House website?” and perhaps juxtapose that with “What content should NOT be on the White House website?”

    In the end, are we conflating “brazenly political” with “makes the President look good” ?

  11. Anderson says:

    The difference between “campaign website” and “gov’t website” is just that the latter doesn’t have a DONATE NOW link.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Rick Almeida: I base it on the fact that I’m in the web business and I’ve read quite a lot of commentary from Obama’s team on the general messaging strategy. It’s just a whole different approach to the Web than the Bush team, or any other previous team, had. That is, pretty much what @mattb says.

    @Mike: @Rick Almeida: @Vast Variety: I’m not particularly outraged by today’s page. This is, after all, buried in the Quick Takes section, not a mainline post. Mostly, I was just struck by it.

    I found the January 20, 2009 migration of the Obama campaign site to WhiteHouse.gov much more jarring and unseemly. Today’s page is much less campaigny than that. But it’s clearly being used to promote Candidate Obama in a much more deliberate way than the Bush White House page was–even though I agree with others above that the messaging was deliberately chosen (the veterans emphasis, most notably), it was mostly a banal recitation of stuff that was happening. “Education discussed,” “Veterans discussed,” etc. Just a whole different concept of WhiteHouse.gov.

  13. wr says:

    @James Joyner: I’d say it’s a generational difference. Bush’s people didn’t care about communcating via the website, and the people they put in charge of it were simply terrible at their jobs. It’s not the design — dull as that is — but the awful writing. Look at those headlines you quote: “Education discussed.” “Veterans discussed.” Everything up there is presented in the passive voice and thus guaranteed not to be read.

    Can you imagine running passive-voice headlines like this? Not if you’re getting paid by the click!

  14. James Joyner says:

    @wr: Yup. The web has evolved enormously from 2004, which is the last real comparable. The Clinton site was, naturally, much worse, since the web was even newer. The 2008 site was better but still not great.

    But the Obama takeover is just jarring: It immediately became a messaging tool for Team Obama in a way that no previous White House site had been. Like by a factor of a million.

  15. Curtis says:

    Sorry. I just don’t see a factor of a million. I don’t even see a factor of 10.

    Bush’s campaign in 2004 was all about keeping us safe in the war in terror, and his role as commander in chief, and the site has a shot of him running with a veteran. Obama’s message is that he has the better plan to get the economy moving forward, and it has a picture of him with on a factory floor with a working man.

    It is glossier, and it is prettier. But substantively, I think both are trying to emphasize each president’s reelection argument.

  16. sam says:

    @James Joyner:

    It immediately became a messaging tool for Team Obama in a way that no previous White House site had been. Like by a factor of a million.

    Well, we have come aways since the citizenry could just walk into the White House and talk to the president. Now you click on the Contact Us button.

  17. Davebo says:

    I don’t see them as the same thing, though, as the White House site. The former strike me as personal web pages, the latter as our web page. That may be a silly distinction.

    No James, it’s an idiotic distinction since in both instances the federal government funds the sites and they are all “Our Web Page” not personal web pages at all.

    Just because you are (hopefully) rightly disgusted by the topics covered on the websites for representatives you voted for in the first place and continue to vote for despite your alleged “discomfort” it doesn’t take that published data off our tax dole.

    Perhaps you should find another “our” web page such as Drudge or Red State.

    They both have the advantage of being both federal subsidy, and reality free.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @Davebo: I think most of us view Congress in a fundamentally different way than we do the presidency. Crass politics is sort of expected from the former, whereas the latter is a representative of the Republic.

  19. Davebo says:

    I think most of us view Congress in a fundamentally different way than we do the presidency.

    True, congress passes budgets and creates laws. It’s safe to say I wouldn’t be included in the “most of us” you anecdotaly refer to.

    Of course Jim. You should expect more from the politicians you don’t support than you do from those you do. It’s a Republican tradition after all.

  20. James Joyner says:

    @Davebo: Congress has a lot of Democrats; indeed, the Senate is currently majority Democrat. I’m not parsing their websites. The president is simply a different animal because of his quasi-official Head of State role.

  21. Mary Furr says:

    The whitehouse.gov site uses excellent communication techniques to explain complex policies in soundbites to the public. Political though you may view this, politics includes communicating with Americans to help us understand and deal with the problems that we face. That’s actually the kind of web site I want our president to have! Criticizing him today, with Sandy bearing down and the election nigh, is not helpful to anyone. Please put on your big boy pants and write a column explaining the feedback you’ve received. You’ll feel better, and I will feel confidence in your viewpoints.

  22. rudderpedals says:

    Double standard.

  23. James Joyner says:

    @Mary Furr: “Criticizing him today, with Sandy bearing down and the election nigh, is not helpful.”

    The first part of this is irrelevant and the second is rather my point. Surely, a short blog post noting that I was surprised about how political the website is won’t distract the president from doing whatever he’s going to do about a hurricane?

  24. Jr says:

    This is stupid, James.

    The Office of the Presidency is political. So no shit they will use the website to further their message.

  25. Mary Furr says:

    @James Joyner: I don’t think President Obama will be distracted, but your readers, who rely upon your processing of information and judgment, most definitely are. You went to the website because he was giving a speech about Sandy, and you made a snap judgment without reflection, in my view, that was an unnecessary politicization of the President’s response to the situation. C’mon. President Obama has learned a lot over the last 4 years! He’s done a great job using new technology to lead the nation. Give him credit, not grief. Old dogs can learn new tricks, including you and me! If Governor Romney wins, though I may disagree with his policies if he gets rolled by the social conservative and neocons, I still hope he’s a good leader and can communicate with us effectively.

  26. James Joyner says:

    @Mary Furr: I’m not arguing that he’s politicizing Sandy but that he’s politicized a website that wasn’t previously politicized.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: James, where is your complaint about GWB politicizing an aircraft carrier?(MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”) It may well be out there, but Obama has never come close to Bush landing on an air craft carrier.

  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m not arguing that he’s politicizing Sandy but that he’s politicized a website that wasn’t previously politicized.

    Heaven forbid…. Politicize a website????? Much worse than politicizing an aircraft carrier….

    James, you need to re-evaluate your priorities….

  29. anjin-san says:

    I’m in the web business

    I obviously like this site, I spend enough time here. But you are a guy who has a website, not a guy in the web business.

  30. anjin-san says:

    he’s politicized a website that wasn’t previously politicized.

    It was not politicized under Bush? Please. What do you call the scrubbing they engaged in?

  31. gVOR08 says:

    Is the rub really that Obama’s team is politicizing the web site more than Bush’s, or that they’re doing it better? I seem to remember that it was Rove and the Bushies who came up with the explicit permanent campaign.

  32. Unsympathetic says:

    Republican theory is that everything is political. So, this thread has no point.

    If anything, this thread is whining because Obama is simply better at communication than Republicans.

  33. Nikki says:

    Shorter James: How come Obama has a better web designer than Bush? *stamps foot*

  34. James Joyner says:

    @Nikki: It’s not a function of better design, although a 2009 design is certainly better than a 2002 design, so much as a radical shift in the way the site is being utilized. A President Romney, or whoever the next Republican is, will doubtless follow suit. But it’s a pretty jarring shift.

  35. Nikki says:

    Savvy marketing vs. Politization. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.