ph2008111500685Barack Obama owes his historic election victory in no small part to the transcendent power of his oratory. The question now is how he will use those oratorical skills — and his campaign’s mastery of 21st-century communications techniques — to lead the American people.

At times of national crisis, words matter. Teddy Roosevelt coined the term “bully pulpit,” and his cousin Franklin used “fireside chats” during the Great Depression to sell his plan for economic renewal to the American people. Decades later, Ronald Reagan proved time and again his ability to rally voters behind him, to the point where he achieved many of his legislative gains despite the fact most Americans opposed them: Such was the power of his ability to use language and images to connect with voters on a personal level. Bill Clinton relied on his talent for relating to average Americans, as well, to win two White House terms.

All modern leaders, it seems, subscribe to Winston Churchill’s maxim that “of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world.”

Of course, Churchill never envisioned the Internet — President-elect Obama’s greatest potential weapon going forward.

If his campaign was any indication, Obama could be the first chief executive to build on the lessons of presidents past and use new technology to create a power base out of the new voters and large blocs of disaffected Americans who otherwise might not have supported him. His clear understanding of the Internet’s potential can also help him manage Congress and provide some powerful communications lessons for businesses.

His campaign stayed in touch with supporters via e-mail, Twitter, text messages, videos on YouTube and social networking websites, all of which augmented its use of traditional communications tactics such as direct mail, phone banking and a reliance on traditional media to get its message out. All told, Obama woke up the morning after his historic election with a database of 10 million American citizens, 3.1 million of them donors. Many of them also volunteered time.

Given the campaign’s careful maintenance of this ever-growing database, it’s easy to see how an Obama administration could use the knowledge it gains from voter profiles to, say, encourage the AARP member in Elyria, Ohio, who gave a total of $325 in three different installments to contact her congressman in support of an Obama health care initiative.

Obama will take office with clear advantages: There’s the size of his Electoral College triumph and the fact that he became the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to top 50 percent in the popular vote. His message — change, hope and bipartisanship — dovetailed exactly with the electorate’s needs and desires. He’ll also benefit from the fact that, at least temporarily, the Republican Party is ideologically adrift and weakened by infighting.

But despite running a campaign largely independent and free from lobbyist influence, the president-elect nonetheless will be dealing with 535 lawmakers who depend at least in part on lobbyist contributions to maintain their campaign war chests. Entrenched interests could be obstacles to the progress he promotes.

So for Obama to make the most of his bully pulpit, he’ll need to institutionalize in the White House the things that made his campaign tick. None among them is more important than maintaining contact with the hundreds of thousands of first-time voters and first-time donors, the people who served as the backbone of his victory, the vast majority of whom connected with the campaign through the Internet.

Connecting with supporters this way will be new and revolutionary.

That’s because Obama will truly be able to reach past the national media and the Washington chattering class that has so defined issues and presidential politics in the past, and communicate directly with voters on his policy proposals and where he wants to lead the country.

There’s nothing he can do to better further his chances for success than to keep these people engaged and involved as he attempts the difficult pivot from campaigning to governing. And staying in touch with these people should be easy. Think of it this way: How often have you changed your personal e-mail address or cell phone number in the past five years?

Maintaining these connections increases the chances that Obama can truly be the transformational leader he promised to be on the campaign trail. And regardless of whether his presidency is ultimately viewed as a success or a failure, he’s created a new map for how politicians connect with supporters.

Jeff Eller is president and CEO of Public Strategies Inc. He was deputy assistant to the president and director of media affairs in the Clinton White House and pioneered the early involvement of the Internet in political communications.

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