As quirky — and potentially embarrassing — as some of the most popular petitions are, White House officials profess to be encouraged by public interest and participation. More than 94,000 petitions have been created, and they have garnered 5.9 million signatures from 4 million users, said Macon Phillips, the White House director of digital strategy. The administration has issued 82 responses.
“We could create a carefully staged social-media experience . . . but it would be the most boring thing imaginable,” said Phillips, who oversees a staff of 11, including three who work extensively on the project. “Would I prefer not to go around the office here and be known as the guy carrying [obscure] petitions? That would be nice. But I view this overall as a huge win because we are able to address issues people care about on a scale that’s never happened before.” Unlike some of his peers, Phillips, 34, who worked on Obama’s first campaign, believes there’s no such thing as bad publicity. He contends that the notoriety surrounding the more offbeat petitions has helped drive interest to more serious efforts, including some that have had a direct effect on policy.
As an example, Phillips points to the administration’s response to two petitions that garnered more than 100,000 signatures opposing legislation aimed at forcing Web sites to monitor users for copyright infringements. In an 820-word response, the White House indicated it would not support the bills as written — and both were later dropped by Congress. “I don’t think the administration would have weighed in as quickly” without the petitions, said Phillips, who envisions linking “We the People” to Facebook and other social media to solicit even greater participation.
Those divides are on full display on the site. Seven secession petitions are currently among the top three dozen on the list, including one from Texas with 120,000 signatures. The second most popular — one of many petitions seeking to legalize marijuana — has 65,000. Requests for a recount of the presidential election results, the repeal of the health-care law and the impeachment of the president each have surpassed the 25,000-signature threshold — even though the recount petition was based on voting statistics that a fact-checking Web site rated “Pants on Fire” false. There is at least one request focused on the fiscal cliff. A petition posted on Nov. 18 calls on the White House to reach bipartisan compromise on the issue with Congress so young people “can have bright futures.” Fewer than 650 people have signed it.