CHANGING.GOV:

Robert Gibbs

, Obama’s chief spokesman and a seasoned press operative, knows how to maneuver around prickly issues. So when the most popular question on

Change.gov

asked whether Obama would appoint a special prosecutor to “independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping”–besting 76,000 other questions submitted in recent weeks by citizens–Gibbs simply ignored it. Instead, he recorded a YouTube video tackling other popular questions. Then Obama aides posted a note on January 9 inaccurately categorizing the special prosecutor question as “previously answered.” That gambit was the first obvious failure at Change.gov, Obama’s admirable attempt to create a portal for more open and transparent government.

It is striking that Obama’s aides, who helped win the election by harnessing new media, believed they could just spin away from their online interlocutors. Instead, the move backfired immediately.

Bob Fertik

, the activist who submitted the question, campaigned for it; and progressive websites, including thenation.com, blasted the dodge. Within a day, MSNBC’s

Keith Olbermann

picked up the story. A day later, Obama was compelled to answer the question in an interview with ABC’s

George Stephanopoulos

, who quoted it and pressed Obama with two follow-ups. Obama’s answer, which prioritized moving “forward” but did not rule out a special prosecutor, made the front page of the January 12

New York Times

.

By blatantly ducking a tough question, Gibbs set off a reaction that forced Obama to answer it. With transparent government and vigilant reporting, important questions can actually trickle up.   ARI MELBER

SIGNALS OF CHANGE:

When

Julius Genachowski

noted the reaction to

Barack Obama

‘s technology and innovation plan in late 2007, the former

Federal Communications Commission

staffer used a word that should be at the heart of every discussion about media policy: “democracy.” “The response to the plan has been great,” he blogged. “One independent comment that stands out: ‘If even half of the proposals outlined here were to be implemented, it would fundamentally change the nature of our democracy for the better.’ That’s why Barack Obama is running for President–fundamentally changing the country and the world for the better.”

Sure, that reads like the raving of an Obama enthusiast. And Genachowski, one of Obama’s subeditors at the

Harvard Law Review

, is close to the president-elect. But it is a closeness with salutary consequences; he is set to serve as the next FCC chair. Having someone in that seat who recognizes that debates about bandwidth and bytes define not just media systems but democratic discourse is a very good thing.

How good remains to be seen; industry pressures on the FCC are intense. But Genachowski has impressed key media activists. “It is clear that he understands the importance of open networks and a regulatory environment that promotes innovation and competition to a robust democracy and a healthy economy,” says

Public Knowledge

‘s

Gigi Sohn

. “I believe that in his new role, Julius will work to ensure that the FCC meets its legal obligation to protect the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity’ and will develop a principled, strategic policy agenda that promotes openness, free speech, competition, innovation, access, economic growth and consumer welfare.” If Sohn is right, Genachowski can change the nature of our democracy for the better.   JOHN NICHOLS

LABOR’S SCHISM:

It’s not exactly a convenient moment for labor to fight a civil war in California.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

has declared “financial Armageddon” over a projected $42 billion budget shortfall–a deficit he intends to fill by hiking taxes on the poor and slashing pay for home health aides to minimum wage. Meanwhile, the arrival of a labor-friendly president marks a historic opening for passing labor law reform. It’s a moment when it might be nice to have all of labor’s hands on deck.

Instead, on January 9,

SEIU

moved to dismantle one of its largest locals, the Oakland-based

United Healthcare Workers-West

, slicing off nearly half its members into a new local formed for long-term-care workers. A decision by SEIU to put UHW under trusteeship may be imminent as well. The lopsided board vote was the decisive moment in a long-simmering conflict between the two parties over how to expand labor’s ranks and build true worker power, with SEIU pushing for mega-mergers of local unions to deal with large employers and UHW cultivating a militancy that has allowed it to make substantial wage gains for its members–while quickly attracting new ones. SEIU president

Andy Stern

claims UHW is undermining national strategy and compares its president,

Sal Rosselli

, to Southern whites who resisted federal civil rights legislation. “At some point,” he says, “it’s a question of the rule of law.”

Rosselli calls the planned merger “outrageous and undemocratic.” “I feel like he’s driving SEIU over a cliff,” he says, “and he just has blinders on.” UHW activists formed the bulk of SEIU’s army in labor’s campaign for Obama in California and are, in Rosselli’s view, the linchpin to fighting off Schwarzenegger’s austerity plan. But Rosselli and many rank-and-filers say UHW members will turn their energies to fighting SEIU, worksite by worksite. And the fight will get messy in Washington, too, given that key labor players–from incoming Labor Secretary

Hilda Solis,

to House Speaker

Nancy Pelosi,

to House Education and Labor Committee chair

George Miller

–have thousands of UHW members in their districts and are being lobbied heavily by both sides on this internecine battle rather than, say, on the

Employee Free Choice Act

. It’s a vulnerable time for SEIU, which is facing inquiries into embezzlement at another local, while being singled out as undemocratic and corrupt in a

Chamber of Commerce

propaganda war. But Stern dismisses concerns that SEIU’s fight in California will undermine labor movement goals. “There’s never a right time,” he says.

Outside critics disagree. “It looks like this train is zooming toward a huge wreck in which trusteeship will be imposed on a very vital local,” says labor historian

Nelson Lichtenstein

of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Stern is no Teamster boss, but this is a blunder.”   ESTHER KAPLAN