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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama and the Blogosphere

As predicted by the much-questioned final Des Moines Register poll, Barack Obama won Iowa on the strength of unprecedented support from independent voters and first-time Caucus-goers.
But well before the Caucuses, on blog sites like Talk Left and Firedoglake, questions were being raised about an Obama candidacy based on what sometimes seemed like excessive efforts to reach beyond the Democratic base.
For many bloggers, the problem with Obama was—and is–that he’s been playing into a much-derided “triangulation” meme in appealing to voters without traditional Democratic credentials. As Ezra Klein said last Tuesday, Obama was using “old politics of centrist caution and status quo bias.” Markos Moulitsas walked back from his announced intention to vote for Obama, saying “you have to have your head stuck deep in the sand to deny that Obama is trying to close the deal by running to the Right of his opponents. And call me crazy, but that’s not a trait I generally appreciate in Democrats, no matter how much it might set the punditocracy’s hearts a flutter.” Matt Yglesias tempered his former enthusiasm for the candidate as well, writing “while there’s a lot I like about Barack Obama, if he wins Iowa it won’t have been by running hard on the things I like best about him.”
In truth, Obama hasn’t been afraid to strike back at all his critics with whichever tool best fits the job. Whether criticizing Hillary on health care or questioning John Edwards on the Iraq war, his campaign throws an effective punch. When he announced his intent to seek the presidency, there were real questions about whether Obama had the toughness to win — no longer. But to his online critics, Obama willfully ignored a crucial tenet of blogosphere doctrine — they accuse him of using right-wing talking points to criticize his opponents. And in their eyes, there is no greater sin than validating a GOP frame.
The great irony here is that, ostensibly, the thing that gives so many bloggers pause about Barack Obama is the very thing that they hate about Bill Clinton’s presidency. In fact, the strategy of using “centrist caution” to reach out to swing voters and Independents has been called Clintonism for a long time now. But many of those uncertain about Barack Obama have a lot invested in an alternate strategy of hyper-partisanship, of one-upping the conservatives, of constant confrontation, and when Obama says he does not want to pit Red America against Blue America, you can almost hear them asking, “Why not?” Obama’s real problem in the blogosphere, however, might be about something much bigger than his talking points.
The progressive blogosphere was born in the wake of the Dean campaign four years ago and MoveOn.org before that. In that time, that movement has engaged thousands of people, poured millions of dollars into politics, and given birth to a new slew of progressive stars. The leaders of the movement came into this election fully expecting to have a major impact on the result of the nominating process.
It’s hard to imagine anyone doing more to earn the allegiance of netroots leaders than John Edwards, whose campaign rhetoric has often come right out of the Crashing the Gates playbook. But for all their misgivings, the blogosphere is hardly immune to the appeal of Barack Obama. Kos, Matt Yglesias, and others have all said they would vote for the guy. After watching Obama’s Iowa victory speech, Ezra Klein was almost rapturous: “[Obama] is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair.” But Obama has never courted the online leaders, he never used to their movement to fuel his candidacy, and that as much as anything, makes the vanguard of the blogosphere nervous.
Instead, Barack Obama has built his own, wholly original activist movement. Online, outside the blogs, his campaign has built an infrastructure that reaches hundreds of thousands of people, instantly. More than half a million people have given money to his campaign, and thousands more have volunteered their time. Indeed, this movement appears to be a central component of Obama’s post-partisan vision of America. In his instantly-famous Iowa victory speech, Obama referred to his supports again, and again — “You have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do…You said the time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington…I know you didn’t do this for me. You did this – you did this because you believed so deeply in the most American of ideas – that in the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it.” For Obama, the key to his political success has been to transform his candidacy into something bigger than himself, and bigger than any party faction, and he has done it without much help from the Washington establishment or the blogger insurgency.

4 comments on “Obama and the Blogosphere

  1. Philosophe Forum on

    I’m an Illinois voter & ashamed to have Obama as my senator. He was practically handed his seat thanks to Alan Keyes. Almost immediately after getting his office on The Hill, he started working on his presidential campaign. He has barely earned the generous salary taxpayers give him.
    His speaking style reminds me of Reagan — lots of pretty talk selling snake oil public policies that won’t measure up in the long term. His record in the IL General Assembly is less than stellar. Bottom line: he refuses to fight. We desperately need someone to support women’s issues. Consistently responding “present” every time pro-women legislation came up is unacceptable. Obama is a Chicago Machine politician just like Clinton is an establishment politician (She already has all the delegates she needs, too.).
    IL politicians have been told they will support & vote for Obama. Additional proof that Obama is nothing more than a Chicago politician with good oratory skills. He talks a good game about change, & that is an oxymoron for a Chicago poltician. Successful change leaders have the flexibility to cope with the specific needs in a changing environment and to work creatively with what is given. That works in a campaign. For a product of the Chicago Machine, there is no such thing in national & international policy.
    After analyzing the research, the genuine choices are Edwards & Richardson. Do the entire country a favor & stop drinking the kool-aid. Return to reality. A vote for Obama is a vote against true democracy. Just a public policy perspective from an IL MPA.

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  2. Matt on

    Steve K:
    I’m not saying that Obama’s rhetoric is the wholly original part. I think the fact that he has more than 500,000 donors is completely original. I think the fact that the average donation to his campaign is less than $300 is completely original. I think the fact that people have watched his videos on YouTube more than 8,000,000 times is completely original.
    All this, (coupled with his efforts to pull in more volunteers, his other efforts with online networking, his wise application of email, etc.) leads me to believe that the Obama campaign is trying to building a movement. His victory in Iowa (and the success he looks to have in New Hampshire) lead me to believe that he’s being successful in doing so. And this movement is completely different, created apart from the one that we’ve come to call the netroots.
    An Edwards victory would have been an affirmation of the blogosphere. An Obama nomination is not (anymore than it’s a victory for the DC establishment). An Edwards nomination would have been a clear victory for the new progressives — and it’s less clear that an Obama victory means the same.

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  3. Steve K on

    Matt,
    You have a point that the blogosphere is rhetorically “hotter” than the electorate is used to. But part of the reason why Obama’s post-partisianship sounds appealing is because the news media routinely criticizes (left-wing) “partisan” politics; left-wing politics simply do not sit well with a profit driven media. Thus when you say that Obama’s campaign is “original”, I just don’t see it; his campaign perfectly embodies the corporate multicultaralism (respect diversity but don’t talk about class) that American society has been groomed to embrace. By contrast, I don’t think the blogosphere’s support for Edwards is rooted in a mere desire to “one-up the conservatives” as much as it is in an observation that activists (unlike journalists) often make: change always occurs through a struggle with entrenched interests. Many people on the left think that after the public disaster of the last 8 years, the Democrats could have won the general election with a very far left-wing candidate (perhaps even Kucinich). Given that, why should we settle for a candidate who is calling for bipartisanship instead of a struggle with entrenched interests? Obama’s rhetoric may sound appealing, but it is both innaccurate and perhaps a sign that the party settling for a more conservative candidate than it needs to.

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  4. tLynn on

    Couldn’t agree more. Before Iowa, DailyKos took Obama to task for all sorts of transgressions: referring to Edwards as a “trial lawyer”; citing his anti-Lobby legislation as the strongest since Watergate (apparently implying that the lobbying problem had been fixed), etc. But the BIG VICTORY seems to have disarmed the critics. Glad to see that the blogosphere is more impressed by success than ideological purity. Of course, the Clinton campaign, with its DARE NOT DREAM theme, is now the far juicier and deserving target.

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