Alter: Why Obama Should Keep His BlackBerry

Barack Obama is under pressure to do so many things immediately upon taking office Jan. 20. What should be his very first act?

Keeping his BlackBerry.

That's right. Obama must keep that trusty PDA he has come to depend on, despite bogus "security" demands that he give it up.

Before Obama gets to "Yes, We Can," he has to start with "Yes, I Can." And the only way he can be successful in the presidency is if he can stay connected to the world beyond the "splendid isolation" of the presidency. To succeed, he must be constantly exposed to a wide variety of opinions—not just from advisers, experts, pundits and polls, but from his friends.

Obama's hero, Abraham Lincoln, called it "a public opinion bath." He got it corresponding with ordinary people and by flinging open the doors of the White House to anyone who wanted to come by for a visit. These "baths," Lincoln knew, were critical to his success.
Lincoln's approach doesn't work anymore. The world's too big. But technology now offers a way to circumvent the stifling chain of command and help a president get at least a little closer to the truth.

One question a lot of Texans ask these days is, "What happened to the George W. Bush we used to know?" The answer, in part, is that Bush foolishly listened to the security people who made him give up his e-mail account in 2001. The result was that old friends suddenly found they had no way to get through to the president. More than a few watched in horror as he drove the country over the cliff.

Now I'm not arguing that e-mail would have necessarily saved Bush from disaster. It's not as if Bush would have read a message from, say, Brent Scowcroft when the former adviser to Bush "41" was arguing in vain against the Iraq War. But maybe Scowcroft would not have had to infuriate Bush by going public in The Wall Street Journal if he had been able to get through to the president by e-mail. (Scowcroft's efforts to see the president personally were blocked by White House aides).

Or let's say that at a certain point in 2002, a dozen old friends—people he respected and knew had his interests at heart—had e-mailed Bush that he should give sanctions more time. Maybe it would have at least given him pause.

Isolation is the major occupational hazard of the job, wrote George Reedy, a former aide to LBJ, in his classic, "The Twilight of the Presidency." But what was once virtually unavoidable can now be eased by technology that every president should use.

Yes, Obama needs Rahm Emanuel and others to guard his time and keep people from eating up his day in meetings and phone calls. But e-mail is efficient for any executive. It lets him access the outside world on his own terms. And you can bet that the people in the president's e-mail address book would contact him only sparingly. They know his time is valuable.

The main argument for making presidents give up their e-mail accounts is that e-mail can be hacked. What if a foreign government got hold of it?

The answer to that is: so what? As long as Obama doesn't respond much to the e-mail beyond "Go Sox!" or "thanks"—which is about the extent of what he wrote during the campaign when he responded at all—the harm would be minimal. At worst, spies or other hackers would learn that some guy from Chicago they never heard of thought Obama should do this or that.

More likely, the U.S. government can figure out a way to secure Obama's BlackBerry communication the way they secure his telephone calls. They have already agreed to do so for his desktop computer in the Oval Office. (He will be the first president to have one).
Some objections have been raised related to the Presidential Records Act, which puts all White House correspondence in the official record. The answer to that is to simply release the e-mail correspondence on the same schedule as applies to presidential snail mail.

The BlackBerry decision is symbolic of so many calls Obama will have to make. Some official will always be telling him why something cannot be done for this reason or that. His response should be to press them hard on why things cannot be done differently.

Mr. President-Elect, hanging onto your BlackBerry would free you a bit from the gilded prison of the White House. It would help you keep it real amid the stifling air of unreality that will soon envelop you.

And if you think giving up smoking is hard, wait until you go cold turkey on the BlackBerry. You'll be bumming handhelds from your aides all day long. Might as well keep your own.