In Review: President Obama’s Top Moments In the Digital Era

By Kori Schulman, Deputy Chief Digital Officer, serving since 2009

Countless words have been written, spoken, printed, posted, and tweeted about the Obama presidency and the digital age. Certainly, President Obama is the first “social media president”: the first to have @POTUS on Twitter, the first to go live on Facebook from the Oval Office, the first to answer questions from citizens on YouTube, the first to use a filter on Snapchat. Over the past eight years, the President, Vice President, First Lady, and the White House have used social media and technology to engage with people around the country and the world on the most important issues of our time.

But from the very first days in office, President Obama’s goal has been to bring as many people into the fold of government as possible — to ensure that every American knew that they had a role to play in the process, and that the Administration was listening. After all, the Internet provides the White House with an incredible opportunity to directly engage with the people it serves.

Digital platforms helped to create opportunities for the American people and those around the world to experience and interact with the Obama Presidency in ways that were never before possible. The past eight years have left us with tremendous optimism about how future administrations might create even more pathways for meaningful civic participation and use these tools to better serve the American people.

As a result, some of the most surprising, engaging, funny, touching, and unforgettable moments of this presidency have happened on digital platforms.

Here are a few of our favorites from the past eight years:

2009: The Weekly Address

What may seem like a commonplace practice in the White House these days is actually a digitally-savvy President’s twist on a longtime tradition. Throughout our history, presidents have leveraged the most accessible technology to break news or join Americans in reflecting on what’s happening in the moment. President Roosevelt had his fireside chat, President Reagan had his Saturday radio broadcast, and President Obama has his video weekly address.

Nearly every week throughout his time in office, President Obama sat down to record a video address — at the White House, on the road, with the First Lady or other leaders on important issues of the day, or sometimes with graphics, charts, and facts to enhance his message. And every week, the White House releases these addresses on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter so any American with a radio, TV, computer, or smartphone can hear what the President has to say.

While his co-address with Macklemore about opioid abuse and his end of year David Letterman-style top 10 address were memorable, we had to go with the very first one here. After all, it kicked off a tradition that will come to define the way the President used the Internet to reach people every week.

So while a YouTube address might not seem like a big deal in 2016, it was certainly brand new to the White House in 2009. And like the archived fireside chats and radio addresses of presidents past, President Obama’s weekly addresses will provide primary-source windows into the history of his Administration week by week for generations to come.

2010: The YouTube Interviews

Around the State of the Union, presidents have sat down with reporters to discuss the year ahead and the agenda they hoped to accomplish during their Administrations. That’s important — the White House press corps has been following this President from day one and has often provided the context and held the President accountable over these 8 years. But they are not the only ones with questions. Americans across the country have questions of their owns on issues that mattered to them. So, in 2010, we began collaborating with YouTube to open the State of the Union interview to the American people.

When we first launched this effort, the President sat down to answer questions that came in directly through YouTube. However, over the years, YouTube has become home to a myriad of YouTube creators who have developed significant audiences around issue areas that matter to them — be it science and engineering, LGBT issues, technology, and more. They’re stars in their own right. So, for the last couple of SOTUs, we invited them to bring their sets — and their larger-than-life personalities — straight to the White House and interview the President. Not only did they ask questions on the policies and issues that mattered most to their followers — like community policing, tackling cancer, or making education affordable — they were also able to draw out answers from the President that we’ve never heard before, like “What’s in your pocket?”

INGRID NILSEN: Now, something that I’m really excited about is a series that I do on my channel called Sense of Self. And this is a series where I go into people’s homes and their offices, and I listen to the stories behind the personal items that they have. And before this interview, we asked you if you could bring something from your home, the White House, to talk about today and tell me why it’s meaningful to you.

President Barack Obama talks with Ingrid Nilsen during YouTube post-State of the Union interviews live from the East Room of the White House, Jan. 15, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

THE PRESIDENT: Ever since I started running for office, people started handing me things when I’d speak to a crowd — lucky charms or keepsakes or things that meant something to them.

And so now I have a habit of I always carry around — and I have a whole bowl full of them and I can’t carry all of them around because then I’d — but I’ll pick out a few things that I just stick in my pocket to remind me of all the people I’ve met along the way, and the stories they told me.

So I’ll just give you — this is what I had in my pocket today. I’ve got — this is rosary beads that Pope Francis gave me…That obviously means a lot to me, because I so admire him and it makes me think about peace and promoting understanding and ethical behavior.

This is a little Buddha that a Buddhist monk gave me…This is a lucky poker chip that’s metal — that this biker gave me. He was bald and he had, like, a big handlebar mustache and a bunch of tats. And this is when I was in Iowa in 2007, so he said, this is my lucky poker chip, you can have it. And then I got — this is a Hindu little statuette of the Monkey God, Hanuman, that a woman gave me. And I’ve got a Coptic cross — this is from Ethiopia. So I’ve got a whole bunch of this stuff.

But the reason I thought it was useful to show these is because I carry these around all the time, and I’m not that superstitious so it’s not like I think necessarily I have to have them on me at all times, but it does remind me of all the different people that I’ve met along the way, and how much they’ve invested in me and their stories, and what their hopes and dreams are, so that if I feel tired or I feel discouraged sometimes, I can kind of reach into my pocket and I say, yeah, that’s something I can overcome because somebody gave me this privilege to work on these issues that are going to affect them. I better get back to work.

In the digital era, it’s increasingly important for future presidents and elected officials to use these kind of platforms and sit down with a broader range of people to better reach the people that they serve. While these platforms might not fit the traditional reporter mold, they are equally if not more engaged in the democratic process than ever before.

2011: The First of Many @POTUS Tweets

“@POTUS” has been a long time coming.

The first time the President jumped on Twitter at the White House was in July of 2011, when he kicked off a Twitter Town Hall with a tweet asking the American public for their ideas on reducing the deficit. For a while, any tweet that came straight from the President was signed “-bo.”

Until May 18, 2015, when the President dropped in on Twitter with this:

Quickly dubbed the “Tweeter-in-Chief,” the President has since hopped on Twitter to break some news, share a thought with a fellow world leader somewhere else in the world, join a conversation, or comment on a historic moment.

These are the President’s top three tweets to date:

In a time when more and more Americans are getting their news and information from digital channels like Twitter, President Obama has turned to the platform to weigh in on cultural moments and participate in meaningful conversations online.

2012: A President’s Response to We The People

“The President reacts as John Brennan briefs him on the details of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The President later said during a TV interview that this was the worst day of his Presidency.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The right to petition your government is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. But, before now, Americans had to send signed letters to the government to the White House and Congress, asking for assistance or expressing grievances on a variety of issues. To bring that into the modern era, President Obama’s team launched a petitions platform called We the People. It provided a clear and easy way for the American people to petition their government — along with a threshold for action. Namely — once a petition gains 100,000 signatures.

Check out We The People petitions here.

Most often, petitions are responded to by the We the People team. On occasion, members of the President’s Administration will respond to a particularly relevant petition to their area of focus.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter responded to a petition on a military personnel issue, technology policy advisor David Edelman responded to one about a cell-phone unlocking law. And another received an answer from President Obama.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was the worst day of Barack Obama’s presidency. In the days that followed, Americans from all over the country used the We The People platform to call for action to deter mass shootings and reduce gun violence. A week later, the President responded in a video message to nearly 200,000 petitioners.

“We hear you.”

We the People petitions have inspired real change. They’ve lead to profound engagement between citizens and Administration officials and have also served as an outlet for citizens to discuss the issues that resonant with them most deeply. The power to join together through platforms like We the People will continue to belong to the American people, who have always been the force behind the big changes that move our country and our world forward.

2014: Sitting Between Two Ferns

In the spring of 2014, Healthcare.gov had worked through some initial kinks and was again open for business. So the question became: How do we reach the people who need to get covered and let them know how? At this point, the President had done his fair share of broadcast and print interviews discussing HealthCare.gov and the many ways folks could sign up for the health plan that suited them best. But many Americans, particularly young folks who weren’t covered, weren’t spending their time reading the paper or watching the nightly news. They were online, choosing what they wanted to watch and read in an increasingly diverse and decentralized media landscape. So how would we capture their attention?

In walks Zach Galifinakis — literally. Combining A-list celebrities with D-grade production value, Between Two Ferns had captured the attention of the audience we hoped to reach. So Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett invited him to the White House (and we did our very best to keep it under wraps). Zach and President Obama then proceeded to ad-lib most of the next 10 minutes — breaking character only a couple of times — to create the interview that has now garnered over 50 million views.

But did it work? Not only did the video go viral, but it quickly became the number one director of traffic to HealthCare.gov on the day it was released. So, in the end, this was a pretty good use of the President’s time — and a pretty good time overall.

2015: Reaching a Refugee on Humans of New York

In November of 2015, the world watched in horror as terrorists carried out vicious attack on the people of Paris. In the immediate aftermath, the concern that the attackers posed or traveled with Syrian refugees raised questions and stoked fear about the screeneing process for Syrian refugees who were coming to the U.S. The heightened vitriol around refugees and their place in our country raged online. In the midst of this hyperpolitical environment, Brandon Stanton — the photographer behind the breakout photography project, Humans of New York, — began a series featuring refugees who were struggling to flee the violence in Syria.

Included in the series was a feature on one refugee, a scientist named Dr. Refaai Hamo. Growing up in Syria, Refaai lived what seemed to be the kind of life associated with the American Dream — the son of a farmer and housewife, he worked construction at night to pay his way through college on his way to a PhD, married his college sweetheart and built a family together. This life and happiness changed forever when a Syrian government anti-personnel missile tore through the complex Refaai designed and where his family lived; in total seven of his family members died, including his wife and one daughter. After the bombing, he fled to Turkey but couldn’t make a living without a residence permit and was diagnosed with stomach cancer in a country where he couldn’t seek treatment without insurance or health benefits. After two years in Turkey, he received refugee status to move to Troy, Michigan.

Ever hopeful, the scientist told Brandon, “I still think I have a chance to make a difference in the world … I don’t want the world to think I’m over. I’m still here.”

That notion struck the President. So he took to his Facebook page to comment on the photo:

As a husband and a father, I cannot even begin to imagine the loss you’ve endured. You and your family are an inspiration. I know that the great people of Michigan will embrace you with the compassion and support you deserve. Yes, you can still make a difference in the world, and we’re proud that you’ll pursue your dreams here. Welcome to your new home. You’re part of what makes America great.

Refaai arrived in Detroit with his three daughters and son on December 18, 2015. On January 12, 2016, Refaai was invited to attend the President’s final last State of the Union as a guest of the First Lady.

2016: Messaging the President in the 21st Century

Every night, the President reads a selection of 10 letters from the myriad that come in from across the country. It’s been part of his daily routine since he took office in 2009 — it keeps him in touch with what’s happening around the country and serves as a “powerful motivator,” he’s said.

Given how important letters are to President Obama, we made it a point to bring the ways you can reach him into the 21st century.

So this year, for the first time ever, we launched a way for people to send a note to President Obama simply by messaging the White House on Facebook — much like you’d message your friends. The White House Messenger bot is the first of its kind for any government the world over, and we were thrilled to bring messages from all over the world to the President’s desk.

On August 24, 2016, President Obama responded to a message he received from Facebook. Kathleen, a young woman who is the first in her family to get a college degree, wrote to the President about how he inspires her to make the world a better and more just place. Here’s how the President responded:

Digital platforms helped to create opportunities for the American people and those around the world to experience and interact with the Obama Presidency in ways that were never before possible. The past eight years have left us with tremendous optimism about how future administrations might create even more pathways for meaningful civic participation and use these tools to better serve the American people.

Have your own favorite digital moment featuring President Obama? Share it with us here.

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