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Obama No Longer Leads The Pack On Social Media

The White House took what can best be described as a "blitzkrieg" approach to social media for President Obama's State of the Union address.

There were live question-and-answer sessions Tuesday night, Twitter exchanges Wednesday and the president will take questions via YouTube on Thursday.

Of course, the Obama social media operation was a juggernaut during the 2008 campaign. On Facebook and Twitter, in text messages and on YouTube, there was no comparison between Republicans and Democrats.

So the reality just two years later is striking: In social media, Republicans have caught up.

That's the conclusion of a report being released Thursday by the Pew Research Center.

"Lots more people — including Republicans, independents, supporters of the Tea Party — are just as active in this space as Democrats used to be," says Lee Rainie, director of Pew's Internet and American Life Project. "So the Democratic advantage, in some sense, is being washed away by the mainstreaming of the populations who are using these tools."

'A Medium For Challengers'

Being on the inside also makes it tougher for the Obama team to stay ahead of the pack, says Republican digital media consultant Patrick Ruffini.

"The Internet is a medium for challengers. It's a medium to disrupt the existing power structure," he says. "Inherently speaking, a decentralized online movement is going to be frustrating to people who have the power, and the White House is the very definition of power."

There is also a difference between the goals of governing and those of campaigning. A campaign is a black/white, us/them fight with a specific endpoint. A presidency is a constant litany of deliberations and compromises.

That can bore — and even alienate — the online base, Ruffini says.

"You had a very striking example recently of the DNC sending out e-mails to what I would imagine is a fairly liberal base, asking them to support a freeze in federal pay or extension of the Bush tax cuts," he says, "and I think the people on the receiving end of that must have been wondering, 'Gee, this is not what I signed up for.'"

Beyond Rallying The Base

But even some Democrats think the Obama White House has missed an opportunity to fully capitalize on new media's potential over the last two years.

One social media consultant who worked on the Obama campaign complained that no one in the Democratic Party understands how to use social media, saying: How sad is it that two years in, all the White House can muster is a postgame Q&A, tweeting direct quotes in real time, and policy wonk pop-up video?

White House officials say their social media strategy is no longer focused on just rallying the base.

"Many social media tools offer an opportunity to better explain or better provide details of what the president is talking about," White House Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki says.

And if Republicans have caught up with Democrats in their use of social media, that's not a bad thing, Psaki says.

"We think it's a great thing for Democrats and Republicans both to use new media and social media tools to better communicate. Washington sometimes seems like an insular place and this is a way to open up this world," she says.

Early Adopters

There may also be another reason the Obama team has lost its new media advantage. In 2008, technologies like Facebook and Twitter were relatively new and the Obama campaign adopted them early. Now everybody's on board.

And Rainie of Pew says in the last two years there have not been many new technologies for the early adopters to snap up.

"It's not entirely clear, particularly in the newest applications, like location-based applications or even iPad and telephone apps, what the voter tolerance for use of them will be and what the impact on voters might be," Rainie says.

Only 5 percent of American adults own iPads. So developing a stellar iPad app may not be the best use of the White House's time.

But in a 2012 presidential campaign, honing the iPad app could just be one more task for the army of volunteers.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.