Getting Closer: A New Era of Access

It was an all-access weekend if you were anywhere near a computer... or a Blackberry... or an iPhone. Images of President Obama making phone calls to unidentified congressional members appeared on television and were linked to on news websites, thanks to his tech-savvy Press Secretary Robert Gibbs who documented the comings and goings of his boss through a busy couple of days that included both a rare session of Congress and a stinging loss for college basketball fans.

The irony? The public had behind-the-scenes access to a president who has been thoroughly criticized for shutting out the public and the press.

The Obama White House has distinguished itself from previous administrations in various ways over the course of a year. But one aspect stands out in particular - its use of technology to expand outreach efforts.

Throughout the campaign, Obama supporters relied on social networking sites like Facebook and instant communications like text messaging to organize events. Then-candidate Obama was often seen toting his Blackberry device, which he still has access to despite the fact that there's an even greater security threat surrounding him now as Commander-in-Chief.

Most recently, the White House has turned to Twitter to document the President's movements and the inner-workings of the executive office. His spokesman started Tweeting last month, and now has over 42,000 followers. Gibbs posts everything from breaking news alerts to presidential movements (we're not sure how Secret Services feels about that).

Shortly after launching his own account in February, Gibbs, a.k.a "PressSec" said that joining Twitter seemed like a good idea, calling it "an avenue that our voice would be important in."

"PressSec" was busy this weekend, keeping his followers abreast of every health care development that unfolded in the nation's capital. He kept tabs on vote changes in the House, keeping not only supporters, but news organizations aware of the vote count ahead of Sunday's floor action. (OK - Gibbs was also busy Tweeting about the President's NCAA tournament brackets. It was a sobering reminder that the Commander-in-Chief, like the rest of us, falls victim to the unpredictable nature of March Madness now and again.)

If you follow "PressSec" then you know full well that President Obama was at the White House monitoring the House's every movement on Sunday, and you could view pictures of him working the phones to reach out to undecided members. We learned that he watched the vote in the Roosevelt Room, along with about 40 White House staffers, high-fived Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel when the House reached the magic number of 216 votes, and then went to the Oval Office, where he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to congratulate her on the victory. From there, the President made his way to the East Room where he delivered live remarks touting the historic accomplishment with Vice President Biden at his side.

For the Obama enthusiast, the history buff, the media junkie, or the celebrity voyeur, the Gibbs Tweets provide a sense of excitement, and perhaps a sense of belonging. You get close enough to the President to feel like you're a part of the action, all the while managing to escape the scrutiny of his Secret Service agents.

But critics may scoff at the abundance of access provided by the press secretary's Twitter page. After all, this is the same White House that has been accused of negotiating health care deals behind closed doors, under a cloak of darkness. This is the same White House that was challenged on its promise of transparency, the White House that has been bombarded with allegations of secrecy.

"We need more ventilation of this discussion because there has been no discussion that has taken place in the light of day," House Minority Whip Eric Cantor told Fox in February. "It's all been behind closed doors and smoke- filled rooms. We don't need that anymore."

Do the Twitter followers wonder where the CSPAN cameras were during health care negotiations? Do they ask why the White House wouldn't release the names of congressional members with whom the President met over the past week? The members of the White House Press Corps ask these questions. Then again, they also follow Gibbs on Twitter.