Sorry, Mr. President. Please surrender your BlackBerry. ¶ Those are seven words President-elect Barack Obama is dreading but expecting to hear, friends and advisers say, when he takes office in 65 days. ¶ For years, like legions of on-the-move professionals, Obama has been all but addicted to his BlackBerry. The device has rarely been far from his side -- on most days, it was fastened to his belt -- to provide a singular conduit to the outside world as the bubble around him grew tighter and tighter throughout his campaign.
But before he arrives at the White House, he will probably be forced to sign off. In addition to concerns about keeping e-mail secure, he faces the Presidential Records Act, which puts his correspondence in the official record and ultimately up for public review, and the threat of subpoenas.
A final decision has not been made on whether he could go against precedent to become the first e-mailing president, but aides said that seems doubtful.
For all the perquisites and power afforded the president, the chief executive of the United States is essentially deprived by law and by culture of some of the very tools that other chief executives depend on to survive and to thrive. Obama, however, seems intent on pulling the office at least partly into the 21st century on that score; aides said he hopes to have a laptop computer on his desk in the Oval Office, making him the first American president to do so.
Obama is the second president to grapple with the idea of this self-imposed isolation. Three days before his first inauguration, George W. Bush sent a message to 42 friends and relatives that explained his predicament.
"Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace," Bush wrote from his old address, G94B@aol.com.
But in the interceding eight years, as BlackBerrys have become ubiquitous -- and often less intrusive than a telephone -- the volume of e-mail has multiplied, and the role of technology has matured.
Obama used e-mail to stay in constant touch with friends from the lonely confines of the road, often sending messages like "Sox!" when the Chicago White Sox won a game. He also relied on e-mail to keep abreast of the rapid whirl of events on a given campaign day. Obama's memorandums and briefing books were seldom printed out and delivered to his house or hotel room, aides said. They were simply sent to his BlackBerry for his review.
Diana Owen, who leads the American Studies program at Georgetown University, said presidents were advised not to use e-mail because of security risks and fear that messages could be intercepted.
"They could come up with some bulletproof way of protecting his e-mail and digital correspondence, but anything can be hacked," said Owen, who has studied how presidents communicate in the Internet era. "The nature of the president's job is that others can use e-mail for him."
Should Obama want to break ground and become the first president to fire off e-mail messages from the West Wing and wherever he travels, he could turn to Al Gore as a model. In the later years of his vice presidency, Democrats said, Gore used a government e-mail address and a campaign address in his race against Bush.
The president, though, faces far greater public scrutiny. And even if Obama does not wear a BlackBerry, he almost certainly will not lack from a variety of new communication.
On Saturday, as Obama broadcast the weekly Democratic radio address, it came with a twist. For the first time, it was also videotaped and will be archived on YouTube.