Dear President Obama: My White House petition requires your magical powers

By Chris Wilson

Since President Barack Obama won reelection, the White House website for citizen petitions has received secession requests from all 50 states. In the case of Texas, more than 100,000 people have endured the inconvenience of entering their name and email address in order to support the state’s bid for autonomy. Apparently, in a sign of Americans’ growing distaste for physical activity, 2012 is the year when people stopped threatening to move to a foreign country if their candidate lost the presidency. Instead, they want foreign countries to move to them.

The forum-happy Internet activism crowd has never had a realistic sense of what happens when you to plug government directly into the Ethernet port. This is what happens: In addition to petitions for secession, you get ones calling for Bigfoot to be recognized as an endangered species, naturopathic medicine to be covered by Obamacare, and funding for a Death Star beginning in 2016.

The petition website, called We the People, is not very useful as a guide to what Americans really care about. But it is useful as a guide to how people think of what the government can do, down to the specific words the authors use in the petitions.

Of the 300 most recent petitions, only three request that the government "protect" something—states rights, email privacy, the planet—while seven request that it "recognize" something—same-sex marriage, hate groups, and so forth. Dozens ask that Obama "grant" or "allow" a certain privilege, while only a few suggest he "ban" an action or "prevent" an outcome.

The interactive below arranges the petitions into a tree structure by the principal verb in the title. When you click a blue dot, the tree expands to show all the petitions that begin with that verb. You can mouse over those branches to see the original wording of the petition and search for any word you like by typing a phrase into the box at the top.

Bigfoot aside, most of the petitions on the site are earnest. This does not mean they are all sane. About 37,000 people have signed a petition suggesting that it be illegal to offend the prophets of major religions. Another petition demands recognition that Israel is responsible for 9/11—that one with only some 600 signatories.

But many present very good ideas. There’s one for reforming the Electoral College and another that suggests all scientific papers based on taxpayer-funded research should be freely accessible online.

If there is one binding force behind the petitions, it is that most of them request that Obama intercede in matters that he has no authority over or rightful business meddling with, regardless of where one comes down on the subject of big government. While the site is technically designed to lobby the government, most petitions appear personally directed at Obama.

Even the petitions to secede are written in a tone of distinct obeisance: “Peacefully grant the state of Connecticut to withdraw from the United States of America and create its own new government.” Oregon’s petition is particularly careful to specify that there are no hard feelings: “Allow Oregon to vote on and leave the union peacefully and remain an ally to the nation.”

Secession always seemed to me to be something that, by definition, you did without asking permission. (Mutual breakups are as rare in history as they are in love.) But for all the rampant anti-government sentiment in America, many people still believe the president is an omnipotent force who can pass laws on a dime, ban unsavory behavior, manipulate foreign countries with precision, expel citizens at will and otherwise bend the world to his fancy.

This does not mean people love the government. We know they do not. But they still want it to fix their problems with as little trouble as possible.

There are some great open-source tools, like Python's Natural Language Toolkit, that can automatically identify verbs and objects in sentences with fairly high accuracy. But a lot of human intervention is still required to clean up the results. I posted the code for retrieving the petitions from the White House website on my Github page, and the White House offers the full code for the petitions website on its Github page. Questions or comments? Email me at