Change

Despite the growing chorus of people asserting that Obama really isn’t going to change anything, it turns out there are already changes being made:

Here’s the status quo: A president who has overt contempt for public opinion, who shields himself from opposing views and whose idea of White House Web site interactivity is a video of his dog.

And here’s the change: The Obama transition team is actually soliciting public comments on its Web site, reading them and responding to them.

Change.gov last week asked members of the public: What worries you most about the healthcare system in our country? The site’s users responded with 3,700 comments — and were able to vote each others’ comments up or down for good measure.

On Tuesday, former Sen. Tom Daschle, President-elect Barack Obama’s point person on health care, posted a video response; “I spent a lot of the weekend actually reading the comments,” he said. “And I have to tell you I’m extremely moved by a lot of the stories that you shared with us. We want to keep this a very open process. We want to make sure that you understand how important those comments and your contributions are. We really want to hear from you, and already have begun to follow through with some of the ideas.” Daschle’s video has now generated an additional 3,800 comments and counting.

A lot of the focus thus far has been on personnel and appointments, and that’s probably the wrong place to focus. After all, there’s a relatively small pool of potential cabinet and senior staff officials to begin with, and the secret to having an effective start to your administration is having those positions filled by people with an idea of what they’re getting into. You’re also going to have very specific political and positioning considerations to take into account, and in general it’s just hard to speculate what an individual’s presence means in terms of policy at the outset. But what that misses is that the change Obama promised wasn’t necessarily a reshuffling of deck chairs, or the expulsion of anyone who’d ever worked in the executive branch or high levels of Congress, but by and large was structural changes to government and politics.

In that sense, Froomkin is right that allowing comments on government websites is pretty radical. It’s only as effective as the Obama team makes it, of course, and they could certainly change the aesthetic and subsequently ignore public opinion as surely as the Bush team did, but I doubt they will. And, on the other hand, what’s really going to be important here is the appearance of engagement, and that has more potential than I imagine most people would think. Imagine a system in which people can go to a government website, make a comment, and then feel like someone important actually reads what they’re saying. That certainly seems like a recipe for a much less apathetic and much more engaged electorate to me. It’s not guaranteed of course, but it’s certainly a change, and I think we should understand these sorts of things to be what was meant when we were talking about change in the election.