By Matt Negrin
The White House on Thursday announced a new way it will keep in touch with public concerns – by promising to consider online petitions that get at least 5,000 supporters.
The idea behind “We the People” – as the program will be called – is that anyone with an idea or cause can go to the White House website and make a public pitch for support. If the idea gets 5,000 backers within 30 days, said White House spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya, a “working group of policy officials” will respond.
“This group will also make sure that relevant petitions are flagged for other appropriate administration officials,” she said in an email.
“Throughout our history, Americans have used petitions to unite around issues they care about” it says on the website. But will the administration give a fair shake to every single idea that reaches such a relatively low threshold of support?
NBC’s Chuck Todd asked White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer this morning if, for example, the administration would seriously consider eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency if that idea got 5,000 supporters.
Pfeiffer’s response: “If there are ideas that are ones that we fundamentally disagree with or are bad ideas and enough people come forward, we’ll respond to why we disagree with that idea and look for a way to work together on other ideas.”
Allen St. Pierre, the head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, vowed in an interview with POLITICO that he would submit a petition and said: “We can get 5,000 signatures in less than one hour. I promise you.”
Given Pfeiffer’s response to Todd, that’s a petition likely to go nowhere.
But Joe Newman, a spokesman for the Project On Government Oversight, was open to the White House initiative. “If they’re going to take it seriously and review it, it’s definitely a good thing on paper,” he said.
“Encouraging citizens’ participation is never a bad thing,” Newman added. “But part of me is very skeptical that they’ll be able to handle the number of petitions that come in and give it any sort of thorough review.”
Patrice McDermott, the director of Open The Government who in March gave President Barack Obama an anti-secrecy award, called it a “positive step” even as she said the administration should make public the petitions that don’t get enough signatures to break through.
“The other test is that range of issues,” she said. “Is it going to be only issues that are only of political benefit to the White House, or – who designs that, and how’s it going to be limited, and will it change over time?”
Republicans were immediately suspicious.
While Patrick Ruffini, a partner at the Republican-leaning digital media firm Engage, called the White House’s effort a “great move” to appear transparent, he questioned the motive.
“It’s just more people that they can communicate with,” he said of the people who will give the White House their contact information.
“The Obama campaign and the Obama White House are extremely metrics-driven in their online operation. … One thing we know works from an online perspective is petitions … particularly petitions that have a shot at getting in front of the president.”
“It’s the government equivalent of, ‘you may win an iPad,’” he added.
The Republican National Committee was even more skeptical. “The president is clearly in campaign mode from his fundraisers to his campaign bus tour and now more campaign tactics coming out from the official White House,” RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said in a statement. “This shouldn’t come as any surprise to Americans who have come to see him as the ultimate campaigner-in-chief.”
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