In Review: How the White House Has Engaged With the American People Online

The Top Digital Moments, as Chosen by the Office of Digital Strategy

The White House has always been considered the “People’s House.” Throughout our history, this has meant opening the doors to people from all 50 states and around the world. The digital age brings new meaning to the term. When President Obama first announced his candidacy in 2007, the iPhone hadn’t yet been released. Twitter and Facebook were just finding their footing. Snapchat and Instagram didn’t exist, and virtual reality awaited its popular breakthrough. As technology has evolved over the past eight years, the Office of Digital Strategy has used digital tools to find new ways to engage more people than ever before—from sharing the events, sights and sounds of the White House to hosting conversations on the issues and policies that Americans care about most.

Since day one, President Obama has always worked to make 1600 Pennsylvania and this Administration as open and accessible as possible, to keep pace with the changing ways we connect with each other, and to invite the American public to be a part of his Presidency, reaching people where the conversation is already happening online.

In the final days of the Obama Presidency, take a look back at some of our favorite digital moments. And in case you missed it, check out other posts in the Presidency in Review series, including favorite digital moments with the President and We the People petitions.


2009: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama Surprises East Wing Tour Visitors

“The White House isn’t simply a home to First Families or meeting space for world leaders, it’s also known as ‘The People’s House,’ a place that should be open to everyone… Thousands of people have walked these halls and gazed at the artwork. They’ve examined the portraits of Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy. They’ve imagined the history that’s unfolded here. And now you can do all of that without leaving your home. So go ahead, look around, enjoy the history and the beauty of these rooms. Because after all, this is your house, too.”
— First Lady Michelle Obama

In 2009, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama dropped by the Blue Room to surprise a group of lucky visitors during a public White House Tour. In 2013, President Obama joined the First Lady again for a drop-by. People from all over the country — families, students in town as part of the Junior Statesmen of America program, a group of nurses who work with veterans, and many others — entered the Blue Room expecting a glimpse of its artwork and furniture. Instead, they were greeted by a smiling First Lady and Bo — a moment streamed on live video and shared with the country. It was one of many examples of the ways in which President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have forged new paths to make the White House’s East Wing and West Wing more accessible to people online.

In 2011, we collaborated with the Google Art Project and allowed their 360 degree Street View cameras to capture the rooms that are featured on the public tour. Anyone, anywhere, can experience the history and art of the White House from their computer, tablet or mobile device.

And in 2016, for the first time, we published a video of West Wing Receptionist Leah Katz-Hernandez narrating a tour of the West Wing in American Sign Language, visiting the West Wing Lobby, the West Colonnade, the Rose Garden, the White House Press Briefing Room, the Cabinet Room, the Oval Office, and more.

Experience more behind-the scenes looks around the White House here.


2011: Americans give their input with #40Dollars

What would losing #40Dollars a paycheck mean to you? In December 2011, we asked Americans to tell us what losing $40 per paycheck would mean for them and their families if Congress did not extend the payroll tax cut. The following February, some of the people who shared their stories came to the White House to hear President Obama speak and took a moment to encourage other Americans to speak out on this important issue.

“Don’t discount your voice. Your voice is important. I never thought my letter would be read but here I am…Nothing changes without grassroots support and this is the very definition of grassroots support. It may be done electronically or by tweet in this day in age, but it’s still the same. You can make a difference.”
–John, a White House letter writer who shared his story using #40Dollars

From the #40Dollars stories on social media to We The People petitions that prompted conversations at the highest levels of government, digital tools have empowered the American people to join the White House in a conversation about the progress we can make together — one that doesn’t just end on the internet but translates into real-world change.


2014: A White House Tradition Brie-gins with “Big Block of Cheese Day”

On January 29th, 2014, the Obama Administration hosted the first-ever virtual “Big Block of Cheese Day,” during which dozens of White House officials took to social media for a day long ‘open house’ answering questions in real-time on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and via Google+ Hangout. Inviting Americans to ask questions online and having senior officials reply has been a regular occurrence— from Twitter “office hours” with Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett to Tumblr chats on making education more affordable to a “Fireside Hangout” on reducing Gun Violence with Vice President Biden.


2015: Letter Writer Gets a Response from the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team

Every night, President Obama reads 10 letters that were sent to him by citizens through mail, email, and even Facebook Messenger. It has been a part of his daily routine since taking office in 2009. These 10 “letters a day” — or 10 LADs, as they’re known to staff — represent the stories and concerns of Americans across the country and keep the President connected. “It ends up being a powerful motivator for me,” he has said.

In 2015, 13-year-old Ayla Ludlow wrote to the President after watching the Women’s World Cup — and got a response from the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team. When the team visited the White House later that year, she was invited to meet them in person and introduce the President.

Every letter to the White House represents an individual story — important perspectives on the issues that matter most to those who’ve written to the President. We’ve featured hundreds of these letters and the President’s responses publicly at letterstopresidentobama.tumblr.com, and invited many of the writers to introduce the President at an event or even sit down with him for lunch.

In 2016, after seeing the heartbreaking images of Omran Daqneesh, a five-year-old boy in Aleppo, Syria, sitting in an ambulance, 6-year-old Alex from New York wrote to the President about inviting Omran to his home. President Obama shared Alex’s story at a United Nations summit on refugees, and met Alex and his parents in person at the White House.

See a selection of the highlights over the last eight years at whitehouse.gov/Letters.


2015: #LoveWins

“To see people gathered in an evening outside on a beautiful summer night, and to feel whole, and to feel accepted, and to feel that they had a right to love, that was pretty cool. That was a good thing.”
— President Obama

In 2015, as the nation awaited the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges — the historic decision that would finally affirm marriage equality — Americans across the country displayed their support for their LGBT neighbors, friends, and family in countless messages and pictures online. In April of that year at the White House, staff discussed what they might do to help mark the occasion of a victory for marriage equality — and the idea of lighting the White House in rainbow colors mirroring the LGBT pride flag was hatched.

When the Supreme Court announced its decision in late June, staff moved to put the plan in motion, installing lights in front of the North Portico that afternoon. Since staff did not know what day the Court’s decision on marriage equality would be issued, they stored approximately 100 lights on campus for several weeks to be safe. There was just one problem: daytime tests revealed the lights were malfunctioning — blinking and turning off after only a few minutes of testing. Rain water had seeped into the light boxes after inclement weather throughout that week. After troubleshooting for several hours, the lights began to dry out and function just as night fell. The colored lights lit the White House in rainbow without fail until 4:00 A.M. — and provided the backdrop for a celebration of the day we’ll always remember as a reminder that #LoveWins.


2016: Inside the State of the Union Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

Through the years, we’ve seen the State of the Union address change with the evolution of media: President Calvin Coolidge delivered the first State of the Union radio broadcast in 1923; President Harry Truman the first TV broadcast in 1947; President George W. Bush the first live webcast in 2004.

During President Obama’s time in office, the rise of social media and our changing media consumption habits with smartphones, tablets, and other devices prompted this Administration to take another look at delivering the State of the Union to the American public. In 2011, the White House produced the first “enhanced” State of the Union livestream, providing the facts, stats, charts and iconic images around the President’s remarks.

By 2016, the State of the Union was streamed on-demand on Amazon Video, wh.gov/SOTU and our YouTube channel — and then made available to Americans across all devices so no matter how or where, you’d be able to see President Obama’s address.

During the speech in real-time, video excerpts were shared on Facebook and Twitter, live GIFs on Tumblr, 6-second videos on Vine, photos on Instagram, and an Official Story on Snapchat, reflecting our commitment to meet people no matter where they are. We also re-imagined the ways Americans could engage with the State of the Union before and after the address, providing line-by-line annotations to the address, a behind-the-scenes look at how those speeches came together, and inviting the public to share their thoughts and reactions, too.


2016: The Impact of Diplomacy as Told Through #CubaVisit

In 2016, President Obama made history when he became the first U.S president to visit Cuba in almost 90 years. People across the world followed along and took to social media to share their excitement. #CubaVisit became a place for both the American people and the Cuban people to engage online with this diplomatic milestone. The online conversation was filled with stories of people-to-people interactions — including Americans who had traveled to Cuba and experienced firsthand the new relationship between our two countries. They shared stories from their travels and particularly of the people that they met in Havana. The #CubaVisit conversation illuminated what we as Americans share with the Cuban people, and the agency that we each possess in forging a new chapter of understanding and mutual respect as Cubans pursue a more stable, democratic, and prosperous future.


2016: Bringing the Online Conversation to the South Lawn

South by South Lawn (SXSL) was the first festival of its kind at the White House — a festival of ideas, art, and action that brought change-makers, activists, and artists together to share how they’re changing their communities and the role we all have to play in moving our nation forward. At South by Southwest® in Austin, President Obama participated in a conversation on civic engagement and he called on creative thinkers and entrepreneurs from across the country to help tackle our toughest challenges.

SXSL hosted panel discussions throughout the day that explored how leaders in art, technology, food, innovation, and social change are helping to make a difference in their communities. Interactive booths gave attendees a hands-on opportunity to engage with and learn about new products and types of content that are transforming how we interact with our world.

Although SXSL was the first event of its kind, bringing those who shared their stories online to the South Lawn is not. From the White House Science Fair to the first-ever White House Campout, the Lawn has hosted events over the last eight years that have brought Americans from across the country together to dream big and make a difference.


2016: Learning More About the White House with Augmented Reality

We recently launched our first augmented reality app, 1600 — enabling people across the world to watch a year at the White House unfold on a dollar bill. From State Arrival ceremonies, to holiday celebrations, you can see what 12 months at the White House looks like from anywhere. This is just one of the latest examples of the President and First Lady’s commitment to open the White House to more people.

Earlier this year to mark the 100th birthday of the National Parks Service, we debuted the first-ever VR experience featuring President Obama. Through this VR film, anyone on Facebook or with a VR headset can experience the First Family’s trip to Yosemite National Park like never before. Witness Marine One lower into Ahwahnee Meadow, float in a canoe on the Merced River, and gaze up at the sequoias in Mariposa Grove and take in stunning views of Yosemite Falls.

“President Obama watches a virtual reality film captured during his trip to Yosemite National Park earlier this summer as Personal Aide Ferial Govashiri continues working at her computer.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)