Why the White House Loves Your Death Star Petition

The White House petition drive offers a big megaphone for quirky causes. It’s also helping Obama advance his political agenda.

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Illustrations by Peter Arkle for TIME

Oh, no. not this. Not on the White House website, the pristine digital seat of the most powerful office in the U.S. It’s unseemly, absurd, hypocritical. Barack Obama says he wants to elevate the public discourse, yet here he is, hosting the loons and the radicals, the pranksters and the protesters. Anyone with Internet access can put a petition on the federal mainframe. Get enough signatures and the staff of the President of the United States—the people juggling debt crises, immigration reform and terrorist assassinations—will take time to respond to you.

There are petitions to impeach Obama. To legalize pot. To fire U.S. Attorneys. To try Senator Dianne Feinstein for treason. To recount the 2012 election. To take God out of the U.S. motto. To allow eight states to secede from the union. (More than 350,000 people signed those.) “Do it fast,” said Fox News’ Shepard Smith when he told viewers to sign a petition to declare the day after the Super Bowl a federal holiday. Some 34,000 Star Wars fans petitioned the U.S. government to build a Death Star. The official White House response: “The Administration does not support blowing up planets.” Really.

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So the clamor grows. A half-dozen news websites run “Top 10 Most Ridiculous White House Petitions” stories. Someone has started a petition to end petitions. Another petition seeks to make petition responses better. And how do the President’s aides respond? Do they admit defeat and pull up the drawbridge? Actually, they couldn’t be happier. From where they are sitting, they are winning. Everything is on track. Web traffic is through the roof, with nearly 10 million signatures now on file. That figure doubled in two months. “We wanted a system that is as open as possible so people can use it as they will,” says Macon Phillips, the White House digital director running the effort. “I see the openness of the system absolutely as a strength.”

But there’s a method in all this madness. Consider: Once upon a time, Presidents could talk to the whole nation at will. Thirty years ago, 50 million people watched the nightly news on TV. Now not even half that many do. And whole segments of the public have walled themselves off. How can Obama reach Rush Limbaugh’s audience, except through Rush Limbaugh? How does he talk to his friends and opponents who care passionately about public policy but would never tune in to the State of the Union or even his Inaugural Address?

This was the thought that helped launch the petition system, We the People, back in September of 2011. It started as little more than a whiteboard jot in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a simple idea to get millions of Americans to contribute to the White House website. Imagine a scenario in which a gun-rights group starts a petition to tell Obama not to confiscate guns. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had the opportunity to respond to all these people directly and say we are not interested in doing that at all?” the White House staff mused. It would be a new digital main line to opponents, a way around organizations like the National Rifle Association. Here’s the key. There are two sides to every petition: one seen—the public petition—and one unseen—the list of e-mail addresses it generates. When you sign a petition, you implicitly agree that the White House has a right to communicate with you about that matter by e-mail. That’s why this works at 1600 Penn.

(MORE: American Democracy and Some of Its Unique Discontents)

Gutenberg on Steroids
On Dec. 23, a talk-radio host named Alex Jones takes to the airwaves. He is no friend of Obama’s. He says the President “lies about everything.” He says “they want to take our guns to enslave us.” His audience is huge—millions a week—and his whole show is about resisting “globalist tyranny.” What does resistance look like today? He says, Go to the White House website. He calls on his listeners to petition for the deportation of Piers Morgan, the CNN talk-show host who supports gun control. (The network is owned by the same company that owns Time.) “Understand why we did this,” Jones says later that day in an online video. “We are defending our constitutional republic.”

Before long, more than 100,000 Jones listeners have given over their e-mail addresses. Tens of thousands more visit the site for other gun-related petitions. The public has self-organized. Obama’s staff is overjoyed. The President records his own video response. “I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms,” he says, looking straight at the camera. “The fact is, most gun owners in America are responsible.” Boom. Message delivered. Nearly 400,000 people watch the video, about 10 times the online traffic Obama gets for a regular weekly address. And many of them are the right people, the ones the President could not reach before. When his computer team polls the Piers Morgan petitioners, nearly half the respondents say Obama’s answer was helpful. One in four say they learned something new. The discourse has been elevated.

MORE: Viewpoint: If We Want Gun Control, We’ll Need to Compromise

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