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4 Things Obama Could Learn From Facebook

Few leaders in recent memory have risen as rapidly (or to such heights of influence) as President Barack Obama and Facebook Co-Founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The similarities between the commander-in-chief and the social networking mogul are striking. Zuckerberg launched Facebook in February 2004, six months before Obama burst onto the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and 10 months before he won his U.S. Senate seat.

Both emerged from dubious beginnings. Zuckerberg hacked into Harvard’s computer network and copied private dormitory ID images (for which he was charged with breach of security and other crimes, later dropped). Obama won his State Senate seat in 1996 by getting three Democratic rivals thrown off the ballot.

Today both preside over vast empires – Zuckerberg as CEO and president of a $100 billion network of 600 million people, and Obama as president of the world’s most powerful country.

While they share much, Obama and Zuckerberg differ remarkably in the ways they run their respective organizations. In fact, there is much the Obama administration can learn from Facebook in its practice of four key values: transparency, outreach, responsiveness and humility.

1. Transparency: Facebook has promoted the idea of radical transparency. Its simple mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

While campaigning for the presidency, Obama pledged to “usher in a new era of open government.” But a rising chorus is criticizing the administration for its lack of transparency.

The administration promised to release White House visitor logs. But, according to a report the by Center for Public Integrity, logs from only 1% of 500,000 meetings from Obama’s first eight months have been released. 

In February, Politico reported that administration officials were steering meetings with lobbyists just off White House grounds, perhaps to avoid having to report them.

A recent Associated Press investigation found that the administration refused to release any sought-after materials in more than 1-in-3 information requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Obama has even abolished the White House position dedicated to transparency. As Anne Weismann of the Center for Responsibility and Ethics told the Wall Street Journal about the White House’s practices, “The policies for disclosure are in place, but the applications of the policies do not exist.”

2. Outreach: Facebook allows users to connect to a vast network that extends well beyond one’s immediate family, friends and co-workers. But President Obama has often been unwilling to engage those outside his inner circle.

Having spent most of his adult life in college towns and among cultural elites in Washington, D.C., Obama often seems emotionally aloof when talking with the general public. And he has failed to follow through on promises to reach across the political aisle.

Unlike President George W. Bush, Obama seems to have no close personal relationships with leaders of America’s traditional allies.

Diplomatically, Obama has signaled an end to America’s historic “special relationship” with Great Britain (although he did get to stay at Buckingham Palace on his trip to England last week), upset Eastern European allies by terminating missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and neglected France and the European Union government. Obama has routinely offended America’s only dependable ally in the Middle East: Israel.

President Obama has more than 20 million Facebook friends. But he would do well to do more real-life friending.

3. Responsiveness: Facebook has been remarkably responsive to user feedback and criticism. Zuckerberg has been quick to issue apologies and explanations concerning, for instance, the website’s failure to include appropriate customizable privacy features.

The Obama administration has often been slow to respond to world crises. The Washington Post labeled the six months that Obama spent ruminating over what to do in Afghanistan “a spectacle of deliberation unlike anything seen in the White House in recent memory.”

It took Obama more than a week to condemn the deadly violence that followed Iran’s 2009 elections. And his indecisiveness in Libya has led to the current bloody stalemate there.

4. Humility: Facebook has displayed a laudable willingness to admit mistakes. Consider Zuckerberg’s words in a 2010 op-ed addressing user concerns about Facebook’s privacy policies.

“Sometimes we move too fast – and after listening to recent concerns, we’re responding. …that may not have been what many of you wanted. We just missed the mark. …as always, we’ll be eager to get your feedback.”

Rather than admit mistakes or solicit feedback, Obama habitually blames failures on either his predecessor or communication miscues. 

In his April town hall at Facebook headquarters, Obama was asked to name one mistake in his presidency. The president hemmed and hawed, but essentially admitted to no mistakes.

Barack Obama was dubbed "the first Facebook president" because he embraced social networking technology to communicate his message during the 2008 presidential campaign. But his presidency may ultimately be deemed a failure unless he also embraces the four key values that have made Facebook a success.

Gary Bauer is President of American Values and Chairman of Campaign for Working Families.

Former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families. Follow him on Twitter @GaryLBauer.