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Commentary: Will Obama use 'Facebook politics'?

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Obama is proposing ambitious initiatives on many fronts
  • He says getting 60 votes in the Senate for the programs will be a challenge
  • Web-based politics helped build support for Obama during the election, he says
  • Zelizer: This will be a test of whether "Facebook politics" is really powerful
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely on current events.

Julian Zelizer says Obama's programs could be a key test of the power of Web-based political organizing.

Julian Zelizer says Obama's programs could be a key test of the power of Web-based political organizing.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- The battle over the federal budget is about to begin. President Obama has laid out an ambitious agenda.

He told Congress it would not be sufficient to stimulate the economy in the short-term: "Now is the time to act boldly and wisely -- to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity," Obama said.

"Now is the time to jump-start job creation, restart lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down."

As the president pushes for Congress to enact his budget, he is unlikely to receive much Republican support. The vote over the first economic stimulus bill revealed that partisanship is alive and well in Washington.

In addition, the budget proposal will open the president up to the familiar Republican attack of being a tax-and-spend liberal. Obama should not underestimate how effective such criticism can be. He can just ask Bill Clinton, who saw Republicans take over Congress in 1994 following the defeat of his health care proposal.

President Obama's biggest problem is the Senate where Democrats do not have the 60 votes they need to end a filibuster. In the past few decades, the congressional minority has been able and willing to hold up almost any piece of legislation with the threat of a filibuster.

Unlike earlier eras, the filibuster is no longer reserved for high profile legislation but instead is a normal tool of partisan warfare. Unlike in the House, where only a majority is required to pass a bill, in the Senate a small group of centrist Republicans and Democrats can play a commanding role.

Last month, Sens. Nelson and Collins forced Obama's hand by convincing him to ask for much less spending than he believed necessary.

Now the battle starts again. One of the most potentially powerful tools President Obama could use is the "netroots," which some think he can use to build pressure in the states where 19 Republican Senate seats will be in play in the 2010 midterm elections.

Using what might be called "Facebook politics," the netroots could raise money to campaign against opponents of Obama's budget proposals. They might also encourage volunteers to explain and promote Obama's policies to their neighbors.

They could also provide a forum to counteract Republican attacks, and remind senators of the kind of voter turnout they might encounter in the midterm elections if they decide to stand in the way of Obama's program.

Of course, Republicans could counter with their own Web-based politics, but so far they have lagged behind the Democrats.

When Obama proposed the economic stimulus legislation in January, he didn't really use Facebook politics and instead relied on an inside-the-beltway approach. He let legislators hammer out the details without heavy-handed presidential intervention.

Obama traveled around red states to build support for his plan, but not until after the deal was essentially done. (There was some advertising activity by groups such as MoveOn.Org in the home states of Republican senators, but coordination appears to have been limited.)

Now comes the big test. If President Obama follows through on his promise of using the tools of his campaign for the challenges of governance, we will learn just how strong the netroots really is. The ambition for many who put this network together is to provide the same sort of political support that political machines offered in the late 19th and early 20th century -- organizational powerhouses that brought people into office and built support for their legislation.

Obama's presidency will allow us to see whether the netroots can provide a viable alternative. The potential weakness of the netroots was recently captured in a BBC parody of Facebook, the social networking site.

In the video, a young gentleman, Edward Baxter, opens his door and is greeted by a school mate named Todd. "We sat next to each other in math, we didn't get on, remember?" Todd reminds Edward. The schoolmate asks him to confirm or ignore, convincing the confused Edward to accept this request.

The video moves through a series of jokes that reveal how shallow these interactions can be, such as when Todd explains he can put embarrassing pictures for all of his "real friends" in his "proper life" to see. Asking if his mother is a friend, the classmate yells out "status update!" as another person writes all over the outer wall of the house.

The satire is biting, unmasking the thinness of so much of our modern interaction. We don't know how much of this parody is true of the netroots. The stakes are high.

If Obama can show that Facebook politics is as organizationally strong as the party politics of yesteryear, then he would on to something big. Not only would the president be able to tap into a powerful political army that could pressure legislators into supporting his agenda, but he very well could introduce a new paradigm for governance, one that would remain a model for future presidents.

On the other hand, when he calls on the netroots to support him against those pesky senators, he might learn that many of his virtual supporters have already clicked onto another page.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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