E-Mail Rules Hamper White House Message

President Barack Obama looks at his BlackBerry as he walks along the West Wing Colonnade towards the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

This column "On The Marc" is written by The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, CBS News' Chief Political Consultant.


On Monday afternoon, as the White House scrambled to shore up Tom Daschle's prospects for confirmation, I sent a single-sentence e-mail to a senior White House official.

"Do you agree with Chuck Todd that the White House is losing the spin wars on the stimulus?"

A standard question - Todd, NBC's White House correspondent, had asked press secretary Robert Gibbs the same question during the daily briefing, and Gibbs had deflected it.

The official to whom I sent the e-mail did not respond.

Piqued, I picked up the phone and dialed the official's mobile number.

"I'm sorry," he said by way of explanation. "I saw your e-mail. But because of the presidential records act, I was just going to respond with some boilerplate."

The official did not want to be caught by a superior - although this official has few superiors - answering a reporter's question with candor. (The answer, in this case, according to several other presidential advisers, was - "yes" - the White House had lost a battle, about which I will write more below.)

It's extremely unlikely that my communication with this official will ever be subpoenaed or subject to a Freedom of Information Act request. The paranoia, though, is probably warranted. Officials in the Bush Administration never believed that their communication with Justice Department officials about U.S. Attorneys would be subject to Congress' prying eyes.

To facilitate a more open exchange of thoughts, several aides have disclosed their personal e-mail accounts on services like GMail and MSN. But they can't access these accounts from their White House blackberries, only from their personal computers at home.

Before the inauguration, the Democratic National Committee was preparing to give White House officials private e-mail accounts on their servers, allowing those whose duties include politics - and there is, of course, an entire Office of Political Affairs - to use bandwidth that's not provided by the taxpayer.

The point of this is not to complain about the White House and its quirks. The point is that a lack of instantaneous, unfettered communication, the need to think about every e-mail that goes out and the specter of FOIAs and subpoenas all hamper creative and rapid exchanges of information.

And such hampering, I believe, is one reason why the White House's communications effort stumbled this week.

When news of Daschle's car-and-driver tax problem was disclosed, the White House faced an immediate communications challenge. Mr. Obama had campaign on a platform of single standards and transparency, and here he seemed to be making an exception for a good friend of his on the basis of, well, nothing but the friendship.

He campaigned on a platform of blocking lobbyists from serving in his administration, but he had just given several of them a waiver, and here was standing by a Washington insider who ostensibly (although unintentionally) broke the law to the tine of over $100,000.

I know White House aides were worried about this appearance, but I also know they had a tough time figuring out which reporter was working on which story, and they didn't respond to events as quickly as Republicans in Congress were able to exploit them.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama's team was known for its ability to proceed along several tracks simultaneously. It's been harder in the White House.

The trouble with Daschle bled over into the debate about Mr. Obama's stimulus principles, forcing the White House to use Mr. Obama's personal charm as a pitchman. He spent three hours of daylight in television interviews on Tuesday.

I predict that the White House will adapt very quickly to the communication limitations of their new environment, and they'll be quicker to react during the next crisis. Mr. Obama himself has exhibited the capacity to learn from his mistakes, to evolve and to look around corners. This week, they were reminded that the message is still limited by the medium.
By Marc Ambinder
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