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The Critical Browser: The Digital White House

The language of the new

At 12:01 PM Eastern Time on January 20, the President Obama-era version of the official White House site went live. (There are before-and-after pictures here.) The new version of the site is, not unexpectedly, much nicer-looking, and it has very much the same basic design style as Obama's campaign site and transition site, although the typography has shifted from the futuristic sans-serif faces of his campaign days to a dignified, old-fashioned serif face that probably goes better with the White House silverware. (Considerately, the keywords in the page's metatext include Barck, Barek, Barak, Barrack, Barrak and Obma.)

The changes, so far, are largely cosmetic, although the site promises more to come. Beyond the boilerplate tour of the facilities and biographies of present and past residents, there's an area devoted to the Office of Public Liaison, which seems like it's going to offer at least the illusion of online political participation at some point, but doesn't have much functionality yet. There's a section called "The Agenda," which has lifted most of its content from Obama's campaign site--sometimes with amusingly vindictive results. (The old site, for instance, promised that "as president, Barack Obama will keep the broken promises made by President Bush to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast." Now the official Presidential agenda notes that "President Obama will keep the broken promises made by President Bush ... ")

The centerpiece of Obama's White House site is "The Briefing Room," in which his weekly video addresses will appear, along with his executive orders, proclamations, and legislation he's planning to sign. That section also includes a White House blog, whose first post is from Director of New Media Macon Phillips; it lays out principles for what the White House is expecting to post on the site, and asks for suggestions for "this online community."

The most interesting piece of writing on the blog so far, though, is President Obama's first official proclamation. The inauguration-day proclamation is a recent tradition: it began with Bush 41's 1989 "National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving," which quoted George Washington and climaxed "Let all Americans kneel humbly before our Heavenly Father in search of his counsel and for his divine guidance and wisdom upon the leaders of the United States of America." Clinton riposted with his proclamation of a "National Day of Fellowship and Hope" in 1993; he got God out of the way in the first sentence, and went on to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Jefferson. Bush 43 went back to Dad's example with his 2001 "National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving," which also involved a couple of Jefferson quotes.

Obama's proclamation of a "National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation," though, is a remarkably compact patchwork of quotations and allusions. After the rising sequence of verbs in his first sentence--"humbled"/"renewed"/"fortified"--he gets down to business. "We are in the midst of a season of trial. Our Nation is being tested, and our people know great uncertainty." If that sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because it bears a rather strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure." The initial phrases have precisely the same rhythm. "We know that there is a purpose for everything under heaven," Obama continues, half-quoting Ecclesiastes by way of the Byrds. Later, there's an outright quote from Lincoln, the "mystic chords of memory" riff from his first inaugural address, which connects neatly with Obama's "reconciliation in a time of discord."

In the heart of the brief proclamation, Obama touches on the first inaugural address of John F. Kennedy, which also seems to have provided the model for some of his own inaugural address's rhetoric. Kennedy's "We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution" is echoed in Obama's proclamation, less forcefully, as "we are reminded that we are heirs to over two centuries of American democracy," which continues " ... and that this legacy is not simply a birthright--it is a glorious burden."

That last phrase, though, is particularly freighted with subtext. "Glorious burden," in recent decades, has most often referred to the Presidency itself, rather than the condition of being American; it's the title of a 1968 book by Stefan Lorant, The Glorious Burden: The American Presidency, and of a more recent Smithsonian exhibition about the history of the office. But it's also a phrase Obama has used at least once before. It appears in his memoir Dreams from My Father, in a description of the attitude his mother tried to instill in him: "To be black was the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear."

The "glorious burden" has its payoff in the sentence of Obama's new proclamation that follows it: "Now it falls to us to come together as a people to carry it forward once more." Beyond the resonance of "carry it forward" as a slogan from the civil rights movement, there's a clever rhetorical shift here. In taking the oath of office, President Obama has just accepted an additional set of burdens, glorious or otherwise; it's very much his style to present them as a shared responsibility, and to suggest that they are not simply to be borne but to borne aloft.

That sense of commonality also shows up in one other element of the proclamation: After its opening first-person-singular sentence, it shifts into a collective "we"/"our" mode, with the President speaking as an American citizen--one of many--rather than simply to the people he rules. His new Web presence doesn't quite yet deliver a participatory, 2.0-style this-site-is-your-site experience. But even the suggestion that the Obama team wants to use the most democratic of media to make American government more transparent and participatory feels like a burden beginning to be lifted.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and Live at the Apollo.

By Douglas Wolk