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The First Digital President?

During the long and winding road to the White House, there was an interesting side story that played out about which candidate really “got” technology, particularly IT. Obama was portrayed as web-savvy, carrying a Blackberry and regularly using the Internet. In contrast, McCain was seen as out of touch, even personally admitting that he didn’t use a computer or email.

During the long and winding road to the White House, there was an interesting side story that played out about which candidate really “got” technology, particularly IT. Obama was portrayed as web-savvy, carrying a Blackberry and regularly using the Internet. In contrast, McCain was seen as out of touch, even personally admitting that he didn’t use a computer or email. And certainly one reason for Senator Obama’s historic victory was his campaign’s unprecedented and innovative use of new technologies, including the Web and social networking.

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Now that Senator Obama has made history as being the first African American President, will he also be the first digital president. Some might say that that honor belongs to Bill Clinton. And while the Clinton administration certainly focused on the Internet and IT (they after all had an Internet tsar, Ira Magaziner), there were also areas in which they did not do as much as they could, particularly in the area of e-government. But given the amazing developments in IT in the course of the last eight years (e.g., the deployment of new ubiquitous broadband, Web-2.0, much cheaper storage and processing, etc.) it’s not clear whether the Clinton administration could have claimed this mantle even if they had worked harder for it.

The Bush administration certainly could have. But from the very beginning of the Administration to the end, IT in general and Internet issues in particular, never really got much attention. To be sure, a few Bush administration appointees (most notably Commerce officials Bruce Melman and Phil Bond, and OMB official Mark Forman) worked hard at this during their time in the administration, but by and large, this was an analog presidency, not a digital one.

Which brings us to today. Senator Obama has promised an ambitious digital government and society plan, including promising to create a Chief Technology Officer, to use the Internet to create more open government, to spur broadband deployment and adoption, and to advance health IT, among others. But the real question is whether the Obama administration will use IT to accomplish a few narrow (albeit important) goals, such as using IT to bring a bit more accountability to government, or whether he and his administration will look to IT as key tool to solving a host of pressing public policy problems that the nation will face.

These include growing the economy in the short term and the long term, addressing climate change, reforming health care, improving education, and making government work. As we argued in a recent ITIF report Digital Quality of Life, IT is now at the point where it can and must be applied to these and a host of other areas in order to make real progress.

If President Obama works to tackle these and other challenges by in part using IT, he will have amply earned the right to be called the first digital President.

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