In much the same way that JFK was the first TV Age President, it is increasingly clear that Obama is the first Internet Age President.
Kennedy was not the first president to have to deal with television during his presidency, but he was the first one to figure out how to use TV to his political advantage. He knew how to look good on TV, and recognized that this was important. The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, where Kennedy looked presidential and Nixon did not, are considered pivotal in the outcome of the election.
Similarly, Obama is the first President to really know how to use the unique dynamics of politics in the Internet Age to his advantage. Consider this sequence of events, which has played out at least a half-dozen times since the beginning of the presidential campaign two years ago:
- Obama's opponents raise an issue which they think makes Obama look bad.
- Issue starts to be discussed more and more online, and starts to get distorted by the more rabid of Obama's opponents. Obama's spokespeople may downplay the issue, but Obama himself makes no direct statement.
- Emboldened, Obama's critics push the issue. It gets distorted more and more, and begins to spill over into the traditional mass media. Looking for a good story, the media reports on the most absurd, extreme versions of the original story.
- As the frenzy crescendos, Obama delivers a calm, rational, centrist speech about the issue.
- Obama looks Presidential, and his opponents look like rabid morons.
I'm not the first one to notice this repeating pattern. Andrew Sullivan calls it the "Rope-a-Dope," and speculates that Obama manages to subtly bait his opponents into Step 1 above. I'm not so sure about the baiting part--not because I think Obama's above baiting his opponents, but because he doesn't seem to need to. For whatever reason, Obama seems to bring out the absolute worst in his critics.
This strategy is perfectly suited to the Internet Age, where any idea, no matter how kooky, can find a sympathetic audience. It plays perfectly into the 24-hour news cycle where the biggest challenge is finding fresh material to report on. It draws strength from partisan media like Fox News and talk radio where there's always a willingness to push negative stories about Obama, no matter how implausible.
Back when most people got their news from the three major networks and a big-city newspaper, many of these wacky stories never would have gotten off the ground because the mass media would have considered them too fringe. Indeed, back in the Kennedy administration, the media wouldn't even report on JFK's well-known affairs, judging it a personal matter between the President and the women in his life. Good luck with that today. Even if the mass media doesn't want to report a story, the Internet and smaller outlets now are big enough to give them the breathing room to grow to the point where the large outlets feel like they can't ignore the story.
So what does it take to be an Internet Age President? In the TV Age, the advice was simple: Look Good on Camera. Nixon failed to do this in 1960 and it cost him the election.
In the Internet Age, the key is to Stay Cool No Matter What. This applies both to the candidate and to his or her campaign and supporters. McCain made a whole series of rash decisions during the 2008 campaign, ranging from suspending his campaign during the financial crisis to choosing Sara Palin as his running mate. It cost him the election.
There will always be kooks and crazies around the margins of politics, and now that they have a bigger voice it's easy to be baited into doing something dumb. Taking the bait achieves nothing but bringing yourself down to their level.
Instead, an Internet Age politician needs to remain visibly above the fray, while looking for opportunities to use the cacophony to his or her own advantage.