White House petitions: Huge response, headache too


No, the U.S. will not be building a Death Star. And no, President Barack Obama will not deport CNN’s Piers Morgan or let Texas secede.

These are just a few of the notions the White House has been compelled to formally address in recent weeks, part of an effort to put open government into action: the First Amendment right to petition your government, supercharged for the Internet age.

Now, as the Obama administration kicks off its second term, it’s upping the threshold for responding to Americans’ petitions from 25,000 signatures to 100,000, a reminder that government by the people can sometimes have unintended consequences. In this case, a wildly popular transparency initiative has spawned a headache of the administration’s own making.

The idea, announced in 2011, was simple: Engage the public on a range of issues by creating an online platform to petition the White House. Any petition garnering 5,000 signatures within 30 days would get an official review and response, the White House said. Dubbed “We the People,” the program was touted as an outgrowth of the “unprecedented level of openness in government” Obama vowed to create in a presidential memorandum issued on his first full day in office in 2009.

The response was overwhelming, and a month later, the Obama administration increased the threshold to 25,000 signatures, calling it “a good problem to have.” The White House cautioned at the time that it might not be the last time the rules of the program would be changed.

The petitions continued to flood in, ranging from serious pleas for judicial reform and gay rights to sillier appeals to ban baseball bats and give Vice President Joe Biden his own reality TV show.

Many of them, as Internet phenomena are wont to do, went viral.

“The administration does not support blowing up planets,” Paul Shawcross, the science and space chief for Obama’s budget office, wrote in response to a petition suggesting construction of a Star Wars-style Death Star start by 2016.

More than 34,000 people appended their name to that petition.

“This petition led millions of Americans to read about the president’s efforts to ensure American students have the science and technology education they will need to compete for jobs in the 21st century,” said White House spokesman Matt Lehrich, noting that hundreds of thousands clicked links in the response to learn more about Obama’s policies.

Some of the petitions that met the 25,000-name threshold, like one requesting the White House beer recipe, offered Obama opportunities for positive publicity on terms the White House could control. Others forced the administration to formally respond to issues it would rather ignore.

When Piers Morgan, a British-born CNN host, delivered a hot-blooded diatribe advocating gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, more than 109,000 people took to the White House website demanding that Morgan be deported. Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, nixed that idea in a response noting that the Second Amendment doesn’t trump the First. A list of more than 125,000 names requesting permission for Texas to secede from the union was similarly given a thumbs-down.

The terms of the program give the White House broad latitude to decline to addresscertain petitions, especially those dealing with law enforcement or local matters – a provision the White House has invoked at least eight times. A petition to disinvite pop singer Beyonce from performing at Obama’s inaugural was removed from the site; the page in its place says the petition violated the terms of participation.

And so it was that the White House, days before the start of Obama’s second term, announced it was increasing the threshold a second time, to 100,000 signatures. Figures released by the administration illustrated the astounding interest in the program: almost 9.2 million signatures on more than 141,000 petitions; more than 162 official responses; and two in three signers saying they found the White House response to be helpful.

“Turns out that ‘good problem’ is only getting better, so we’re making another adjustment to ensure we’re able to continue to give the most popular ideas the time they deserve,” wrote Macon Phillips, the White House director of digital strategy.

Whether the petition initiative and the official responses will, in the long run, be deemed an effective use of White House resources remains to be seen. Another unknown is whether signing the petitions, aside from giving impassioned citizens a chance to be heard, has any effect on how Obama governs. Many petitions call for actions that Congress, not the president, would have to take.

The White House says that the petitions frequently have a real impact on policy and that the deluge of visits to the White House website means added opportunities for Obama to engage directly with Americans.

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