The administration's goal of becoming the “most transparent” in history still needs a lot of improvement to get anywhere near the lofty goals announced during the (first) inauguration. One of the few steps in the right direction has been the “We the People” website, which allows anyone to post a petition and have it answered by the White House if it reaches 25,000 signatures within 30 days.
While the aim is noble, in practice the site has become a bit of joke, both in terms of participation and response. Most responses so far have been canned administration talking points that double down on whatever the current position is on the issue. And from the looks of the petitions currently sitting above the 25,000 threshold, there's no shortage of ridiculous ideas searching for presidential validation.
But among the multiple requests for state secession and Death Star construction are some issues that the administration should be responding to — like marijuana legalization/regulation, repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, free access to tax-funded scientific research — but clearly is choosing not to. A US News and World Report article points out that the White House's hit-and-miss approach seems to treat the petition site as another soapbox for cherry-picked issues.
The White House's “We the People” website just got its most popular petition to date: a request to officially designate the Westboro Baptist church as a hate group. The petition was started on Dec. 14, the same day a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., left 27 people dead, 20 of them children, and the day the fringe church announced it would picket the victims' funerals.
The petition now has more than 260,000 signatures, far and above the 25,000 signature needed for official response.
But the White House has not yet responded to the Westboro petition—or to any of the rather uncommon requests that have flooded the site over the last few months (to secede from the Union, to make American Sign Language an official language or to nationalize Twinkies).
The White House immediately responded, however, to a petition calling to reduce gun violence after the Newtown shooting, an issue President Barack Obama has said he's keen to address. In a sit-down video response, Obama carefully explained the ways in which he'd work to make children's schools more safe.
Looking through the archives, many petitions that have been answered fall well below the 25,000 signatures needed to “force” a response, while many others well over the limit continue to be ignored. For every ignored secession request (Texas holds the lead with 123K signatures), there's a response for White House beer recipes (12,240 signatures). For every request to strip the Westboro Church of its tax exempt status (multiple – leader has 70K+ signatures), there's a response to a petition for ending “pet homelessness” (11,729 signatures).
While many of the current leaders have dubious import (deport Piers Morgan for attacking the 2nd amendment – 88K signatures), the simple fact is that the responses are being doled out in a fashion that makes a majority of the site's offerings nothing more than colorful wallpaper. The rationale behind the White House's general lack of response is unsurprising:
J.H. Snider, a fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, predicted in The Huffington Post in October 2011 that “We The People” would “probably only have a short life … because the interests of the public and elected officials differ.”
Those few that have been answered have generated their own criticism. In response to multiple petitions concerning the legalization of marijuana, the administration handed the “reply” duties over to its current drug czar, who was more than happy to reassert his position's normal talking points.
On the plus side, the administration has responded to 87 petitions so far and has even spent some time explaining why it cannot respond directly to certain requests. And it's a step in the right direction that the site is still up and running. But as long as the White House continues to address only its pet issues, while ignoring a majority of the posted petitions, the more this site becomes nothing more than the internet version of the supervisor who asks for suggestions from the staff before implementing his own ideas — lots of nodding and thoughtful noises, but very little in direct response or action.