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U.S. President Barack Obama waits to speak during the National Peace Officers Memorial Service in Washington on May 15, 2012. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama waits to speak during the National Peace Officers Memorial Service in Washington on May 15, 2012. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

DON TAPSCOTT

Barack Obama’s empty Net Add to ...

At this pivotal moment in the U.S. presidential race, President Barack Obama and his re-election team need to focus on a key question that could influence the outcome of this year's election: How do they get the “we” back?

Good question. We all remember how Mr. Obama broke new ground in the 2008 campaign by using social media as a powerful political tool. Mr. Obama's

campaign created an expansive Internet platform, MyBarackObama.com, that gave supporters tools to organize themselves, create communities, raise money and induce people not only to vote but to actively support the Obama campaign. What emerged was an unprecedented force, 13 million supporters connected over the Internet, all driving toward one goal, the election of Mr. Obama.

When they chanted, “Yes we can,” it wasn't just a message of hope for the future, it was a confirmation statement of collective power.

But this time, “Yes we can” has been replaced by a new modus operandi for the Obama campaign. It's “We know you.”

The Democrats are investing heavily in what's called big data to give them significant new insights into the everyday behaviour of each one of their supporters. Big data allows companies, or political campaigns, to probe and analyze information about you – your friends, your shopping habits, what type of events you go to and when, what issues you care about. With this information, they can presumably be more accurate in sending messages out over e-mail, or in identifying the trigger points that send you to events and get you to donate money.

But whatever happened to power of the people? Whatever happened to the “we”? We haven't heard about it since the 2008 victory. “They built the largest online community in the history of the presidency,” says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media, which tracks the intersection of technology and politics. “But then they stopped talking to them and engaging them” – that is, until they called in recently with a pitch for money.

Mr. Obama did make some efforts to be the first Internet president, with a Twitter feed, a blog and the Internet version of the traditional town hall.

And yet, four years after Mr. Obama was elected, nothing much has changed. The same rules apply: Give me your vote and I will rule. “Lots of us believe he squandered the massive political constituency that was drawn to his message of hope and change,” says Mr. Rasiej. “They went back to the bully pulpit of the presidency. They literally put on the armour of 20th-century communications.”

That attitude seems to have influenced the 2012 campaign. “It's perceived as a top-down hierarchy,” said film executive Haroon (Boon) Saleem, who organized events and helped to raise $1.6-million for Mr. Obama in 2008. “I know a huge number of people who are unhappy. They wanted to be connected and involved but they weren't.”

The Obama campaign may think it doesn't need the power of self-organization, now that a new Harvard University poll shows Mr. Obama with a 17-point lead over his Republican opponent among young voters. But will young people be as keen to raise money and connect with friends and vote for the President?

Perhaps not. Youth don't want to be organized; they want to take action, not be passive recipients of instructions by strategists. The Tea Party understands this; Mr. Obama once did too.

Don Tapscott is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. The revised edition of his latest book Macrowikinomics (with Anthony D. Williams) was released last week.

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