Will Obama be e-active?

2009-01-23 00:00

Barack Obama completed his first full day as president on Wednesday, and pictures of the historic occasion showed him sitting at a gleaming Oval Office desk. Will all that empty space eventually be filled by a personal computer?

Probably not, if recent history is a guide — neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush had a dedicated office computer. The White House did confirm that Obama will keep a BlackBerry to communicate with a small group of friends and senior staff. Before Obama, presidents had gone without e-mail, both to keep their messages secure from hackers as well as to sidestep the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which requires that all correspondence be archived and eventually made available to the public. Ultimately, it’s the president’s decision whether he wants a computer.

Even if he doesn’t have a desktop computer, Obama will still be able to go online now and again while he’s on the job. The president has a fleet of computer-equipped staffers sitting directly outside his office doors. President Bush sometimes used the computers of these personal aides to check news reports or sports scores.

Obama might bring a laptop into the Oval Office, as Bill Clinton did on occasion, and plug it into the office’s Internet connection. There is no Wi-Fi in the White House, but you can get online in Air Force One.

Clinton famously sent only two e-mails while he was president, one to test whether he could push the “send” button and one to John Glenn, sent while the former Ohio senator was aboard the space shuttle. Glenn’s response — titled “Senator Glenn’s message from space” — was sent to the generic president@whitehouse.gov e-mail address before getting routed through his staff secretary and then, presumably, printed out and delivered to the president.

During his presidency, Bush didn’t have a personal log-in to the White House Internet server, nor did he have a personal whitehouse.gov e-mail address. (He gave up his private e-mail account just before his first inauguration.) During Bush’s tenure, the White House’s IT department blocked sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and most of MySpace. The ability to comment on blogs was blocked, as was certain content that was deemed offensive. According to David Almacy, who served as Bush’s director for Internet and e-communications from 2005-2007, only two people had access to the iTunes store during that period: Almacy, who had to upload speeches to the site, and the president’s personal aide, so that he could download songs for Bush’s iPod.

In 2003, the Executive Office of the President approved a policy prohibiting, among other things, the use of non-official e-mail programmes and instant messaging systems on official White House computers. This could potentially change under the Obama administration. — Slate.

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