Ever since the computer trounced the television as America's main information source, our Presidents have been confounded in their efforts to navigate the perils of digital media. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both struggled in this new arena. Clinton was nearly ruined by Matt Drudge, while Bush was reduced to a cartoonish, smirking warmonger by bloggers and YouTube.
Barack Obama set out to conquer the digital age. As a candidate, he was all high-tech cool, from Facebook to inspirational viral videos (think the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am) to electronic voter outreach. Obama's White House team has outdone its predecessors in spreading an e-message, even blogging from the West Wing.
But the past two weeks have shown the limits of Obama's info-age wizardry. When Drudge disciple Andrew Breitbart posted a video clip of African-American Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod that made it seem as if she had discriminated against a white farmer, the Administration panicked and forced Sherrod out though even a cursory check of her full remarks would have revealed a tale of racial tolerance. It was a low point for a team that claims to transcend the slash-and-burn tactics of the new-media freak show.
A few days later, Obama took another digital sucker punch when news organizations reported on thousands of leaked Pentagon documents obtained by the website WikiLeaks detailing the true chaos of the Afghanistan war. The President denounced "the disclosure of sensitive information from the battlefield that could potentially jeopardize individuals or operations," but he knew full well he was powerless to stop it.
Obama is as tech-savvy as he is coolheaded. But despite his early successes, he has proved no more able than his predecessors to tame the digital hydra.