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The White House isn’t listening

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Esther Cepeda
November 3, 2011

Doesn’t it drive you crazy when elected officials say they’re going to do something and then don’t? Worse is when they kinda-sorta do something to pretend they’ve made an impact, as if no one’s going to notice that they really haven’t.


Take President Obama’s sleight of hand with the petitions that have been submitted to “We the People,” one of WhiteHouse.gov’s microsites.


It’s part of Obama’s online engagement strategy, aimed at appealing to the same voters who demonstrated they’re eager to interact via social media networks during presidential “online town hall” meetings.


Launched in late September, the cheery site was to be a “tool (that) provides you with a new way to petition the Obama administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country.”


Once a petition garnered the support of 25,000 people, the White House staff promised to review it and issue “an official response.” Obviously an “official response” can mean many things, but so far the White House has defined it in two equally unsatisfying ways.


During the conference call with reporters announcing the president’s plan to address the needs of strapped student-loan borrowers, Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes was eager to say that the move was a direct response to the crowdsourcing effort.


“(This will be) the first petition on ‘We the People’ to receive an official White House response,” Barnes enthused.


It seemed strange for her to bring it up since the 32,000-person appeal she referred to had called for wholesale student-loan forgiveness. The administration’s measures to marginally decrease the repayment burdens of a small population of borrowers fell far short of that.


In addition to the incongruity of this weak response to a tough request, it seemed disingenuous for the White House to answer this appeal while ignoring the most popular petition on the site.


Since its launch, “We the People” has been an incubator for some serious marijuana legalization activism. Within the first few weeks of its existence, six different pot petitions had been posted and almost 80,000 people had electronically signed on. Supporters were recently buoyed by a Gallup poll that found a record 50 percent of Americans support legalization of marijuana, up from 12 percent in 1969.


By the time the White House posted an official response to the issue late in the day last Friday, a little over 151,000 people had signed eight different petitions asking the White House to legalize and regulate marijuana similar to how alcohol is handled.


As you can imagine, the official response—a 469-word restatement of long-standing administration policy from Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—was unsatisfying to the petitioners.


“It truly is a slap in the face. It’s not like they sat down and said ‘Let’s think of what we’ll say.’ This is a canned response cut and pasted from statements that have been published before,” said Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore narcotics cop and now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization advocating for the legalization of drugs.


Franklin says that while some people think these petitions are a joke, others take them very seriously because the White House vowed to treat them that way. Indeed, by Monday afternoon a few petitions to have Kerlikowske replaced had been posted, along with several asking for the petitions submitted to the site “be taken seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening.”


“The people who are active on this site and responding to petitions are real people who really want to see things change,” Franklin told me. “(The White House) could have come up with a thoughtful response or asked the authors of the petition for a meeting to hear them out.


“But to get the same old rhetoric we’ve been seeing for the last year or two shows a total disregard for American people’s views. If they’re not prepared to earnestly answer the questions or really deal with the issues, it just doesn’t look good for them.”


The damage has been done. By bringing the absurdity of reality-TV voting gimmicks into government policy decisions, but not really following through in the way people hoped, Obama has succeeded in further turning off supporters who believed he’d be a good listener—and vindicated cynics who never believe politicians will keep their word.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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