Progressives and Netroots Feeling Abandoned as Obama Tacks Rightward

Election '08
Editor's note: the following are two articles from the Huffington Post covering recent concerns progressive supporters have had with Barack Obama's announced policy positions.

The Obama Problem
by Jason Rosenbaum

In the last week, Barack Obama has handed progressives a string of stinging rebukes. First, he all but capitulated on the issue of retroactive immunity for lawbreaking telecom companies by endorsing the FISA "compromise." Next came his disagreement with the Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty shouldn't be imposed for rape. And then his flip on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling allowing the sale of handguns in DC.

It's been a hell of a week.

So, what are progressives to do? As has been evident for some time now, Obama is only loosely affected by progressive pressure. While he has moved left on some important issues, overall he has bigger constituencies to please, and he will do what he wants.

In the short term, there's probably not much we can do, as Mike Lux explains:
For me, being able to hold a politician accountable is having the real power to actually have a negative impact on something they really care about, namely getting elected and passing legislation they want to pass (although there might be a few other smaller things some politicians might care about). Unless you have the ability and willingness to mess with a politician in a serious way on either of those things, I don't think you can hold them accountable. I don't think saying bad things about them holds them accountable, I don't think holding a protest holds them accountable, I don't think starting a petition holds them accountable- unless it is affecting their ability to win an election or pass legislation.

But the only way to hold a Presidential candidate in the general election accountable once the general election season comes around is to work for their defeat or otherwise endanger their victory. For most of us, given the alternative of four more years of deadlocked government and a stubborn, hyper-aggressive President McCain, that is not an acceptable option. I see occasional commenters writing about not lifting a finger to help Obama now that he's screwed us on FISA or other issues, but I don't think very many of us in the progressive movement are there. Am I bummed, am I pissed that Obama and most of our Democratic leaders caved in on FISA? Absolutely, and there's nothing wrong with saying so. But am I going to "hold Obama accountable" for this action? Well, no, frankly. I don't think there's a way to do that without doing something far worse. It's the nature of the American political system: winner take all, no instant runoffs, no fusion voting (except in a few states). In the months before a Presidential general election, I can't think of another alternative re the Presidential race other than doing everything I can do to help Obama win.

The harsh reality is, Barack Obama can and will tack towards the center on issues that are important to progressives during the general election. We can argue until we're blue in the face that this is not a smart thing to do, and by extension, that the country is ready for real progressive leadership, but Obama will do what he wants to do. Unless we are willing to actively work against him, we have no leverage.

I am not willing to actively work against him. I'm not willing to call on people to pull their money and their volunteer hours either. But two can play at Obama's game.

To me, Obama's methods are obvious. He is selling out a constituency without leverage (progressives) to burnish his centrist image, which he believes will bring him more votes in November. Obama is practicing, as BooMan puts it, "raw political calculation." Well, guess what; I can do that, too!

I will work to elect Obama because, a la "Crashing The Gate," he is the candidate who will most likely bring about the change I want. But I realize that this raw political calculation is only a marriage of convenience. As soon as Obama is elected, I become his critic, looking to move him left.

I will use Mike Lux's second option for true accountability, and my opposition to centrist statements or legislation coming from an Obama administration will be very real. Progressives have shown they can work together to help pass or scuttle a bill. That power will be used against any and all Obama legislation that charts a triangulated path for this country as opposed to the right one.

And in the meantime, I will also work to rid Congress of conservative, Blue and Bush Dog Democrats, and build up long-term progressive infrastructure, building a progressive Congress to pressure President Obama.

I do not believe for one second that Obama or the Democratic party will necessarily bring all the change we need. No party stands for my bedrock principles all the time, principles like the rule of law, the balance of powers, the Constitution, civil liberties, opportunity for all, security through freedom, reduced corporate power, and responsible governance. Politicians will sell me out to get elected when they can get away with it, and I will sell them out to uphold these principles when I can get away with it.

As long as we don't stoop so low as to rationalize a candidate's political calculations, progressives can retain their authority while still supporting a center/center-left candidate.

But once Obama is elected, it's war. As I've said before, November is just the beginning.


Serenity Lost: Obama And The Netroots
by Jonathan Stein

Only weeks into the general election campaign and already a notable tension is beginning to materialize within the Democratic Party. At question is Sen. Barack Obama's relationship with the progressive netroots, the online community that helped aid the Senator's rise to the presidential nomination, but has since seemingly played second fiddle in terms of courted constituencies.

Obama's decision to embrace a compromise on FISA legislation -- a virtual slap in the face to some progressive bloggers demanding no legal immunity for telecommunications companies -- was the catalyst of the recent chatter. Other concerns arose days prior when Obama cut an advertisement on behalf of a conservative southern Democrat whose primary challenger was favored by the liberal blogosphere.

But for some progressive activists, the issue is not simply one of policy, but a concern that Obama's willingness to snub their political wishes is far more endemic.

"You can see it with FISA. He really doesn't feel that much kinship with the priorities of the netroots and I don't think he has made any secret of that," said Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake. "I have to say he is very consistent. He has gone outside the netroots for his strategy… People who feel betrayed right now, I'm not sure why, because it is extremely consistent with what they should have expected."

Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that Obama's standing with the netroots has not always been peachy. Prior to his victory in Iowa, he consistently trailed former Sen. John Edwards (and, on occasion, Chris Dodd) in the Daily Kos primary poll. Even before then, his (now-chilled) relationship with Sen. Joseph Lieberman as well as an essay he posted (again on Daily Kos) concerning Supreme Court nominations earned him some plaudits but also skepticism among some prominent online voices.

As a former aide to Sen. Hillary Clinton told The Huffington Post, had the New York Democrat not had her own problems with the crowd, her campaign would have been a far more natural home for the progressive netroots.

"I don't understand why a group like MoveOn backs Obama," said the aide. "Hillary is the one who will build up the Democratic infrastructure. She's the one promising to fight the ideological battles. He's the one who is talking about moving beyond partisanship. And they love him for it."

Such an argument, however, assumes that the primary goal of major online progressives and their audiences is aggressive partisanship. Some want that. But many are also cognizant of another pressing reality: the need to win. And, as such, there is a willingness to cut Obama a bit of political slack.

"The number of people Obama's campaign has brought into the political process and the development of the netroots progressive movement has been an important convergence in this election," said Ilyse Hogue, Communications Director of "But it is not an endpoint. Our goal remains to hold the ground on any issue that matters to the progressive community. [Obama's] goal is… to get elected, to be honest, but also to understand the power of who's electing him. We have reason to be optimistic about that."

Moreover, the desires of the progressive netroots and the realities of the Electoral College are not always at odds. For instance, Obama's decision to forgo public financing in the general election - while viewed sourly among good government groups - was a welcomed move among the most prominent Democratic bloggers.

Others, meanwhile, have been willing to reserve judgment regarding his position on FISA, albeit with demands that he works to defeat the compromise.

"We'll see what he does this week," said Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos. "If he's part of the capitulation or refuses to lead, then it's salient for your story. As of now, I think it's still too early to write this piece."

And, it should be noted, there will undoubtedly be future issues in which Obama and the netroots rally to the same cause (foremost, of course, being the general election). As experts of campaigns past can attest, the internal dynamics within the Senator's headquarters inevitably leave one group or another disappointed.

"There is always a tension between what the Internet department is able to put out and what all the other departments want," said Tim Tagaris, Ned Lamont's Internet Director during the 2006 Senate and an aide in similar capacity to Chris Dodd's campaign in '08. "The question is what battles do you want to fight, because it is a battle everyday. And he's not going to win it all the time because there are people on staff who have been doing this for decades and the Internet as a political tool is relative new."

But clearly, at this point in time, the honeymoon period that Obama enjoyed for the latter part of the Democratic primary and the first weeks of the general election seems to be setting. And a tug-of-war of sorts could soon emerge between progressive bloggers and the Senator, both over campaign positions as well as the affections of Democrats.'s Glenn Greenwald offered an opening salvo by chastising Obama supporters for a willingness to rationalize their candidate's position on FISA in a way that was "unhealthy in the extreme." While at the Personal Democracy Forum, the Senator's new-media guru, Joe Rospars, was forced to dispute the premise of an assertion that his candidate was "stand-offish" with the blogs.

"Where we see that he is consistent with the netroots is his organizing and belief in organizing," explained Hogue. "Obviously there is some policy divergence which is crystallizing this week. And that's not incredibly surprising, We still have some work to do as a progressive movement to not just have candidates speak about our issues but act on our issues."

AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by its writers are their own.

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