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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Learning to Live with the “New” Obama

(Note: this is a cross-post from Salon.com’s War Room, where I’m guest-blogging this week)
Amidst the anguish being expressed in the progressive netroots about Barack Obama’s vote for FISA legislation (and to a lesser extent, his recent positioning on the death penalty, Iraq, abortion, and faith-based initiatives), there’s an interesting subtext of resignation about the presumptive Democratic nominee’s basic ideological nature.
This is nowhere more evident than at the influential site OpenLeft, whose founders, Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller, have long argued that Obama is a centrist pragmatist rather than a reliable progressive.
Stoller was particularly blunt in a post yesterday entitled “Why It’s Important to Note that Obama is NOT liberal or progressive.”
After assesssing Obama’s policy positions, Stoller has this to say about the attitude progressives should have towards his candidacy going forward:

Obama isn’t ours, he never was, and we shouldn’t pretend he is or else we are throwing away the opportunity to have real progressive policies enacted sometime over the next few years.
Once you absorb this state of affairs, it’s a fairly optimistic path forward. All of the work going into getting Obama elected is helping to build the progressive movement and teaching millions of people to get involved, give money, run for office, etc. These people have progressive sympathies and are attaching themselves to important political networks. Some of them paid attention to FISA who were not paying attention in 2006, which is good. The network is just bigger and stronger.

Today Bowers reinforces the point, playing off my War Room post from yesterday questioning the assumption that Obama’s FISA vote was a matter of political calculation:

[O]verall I have to conclude that Obama’s position back in December, not his position today, was the actual political calculation. As Matt argued yesterday, we should consider the strong possibility that Obama isn’t moving to the center at all, but rather that he was in the center all along. Maybe it is the nomination campaign where we saw the political calculations, not the general election. Obama isn’t moving anywhere: he is simply reasserting himself.

DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas comes at the issue from a different, less ideological perspective, but winds up in a similar place, as illustrated by his July 1 post explaning a decision to withold a financial contribution, but not his support, from Obama:

Ultimately, he’s currently saying that he doesn’t need people like me to win this thing, and he’s right. He doesn’t. If they’ve got polling or whatnot that says that this is his best path to victory, so much the better. I want him to win big. But when the Obama campaign makes those calculations, they have to realize that they’re going to necessarily lose some intensity of support. It’s not all upside. And for me, that is reflected in a lack of interest in making that contribution.

What Markos was really getting at here is that he thought netroots activists needed to adopt a more distant and critical posture towards Obama without going over the brink into hostility, trying to influence his “behavior” without illusions about his underlying ideological nature.
To understand where Stoller, Bowers, Markos and other netroots leaders are coming from, it’s important to remember that there have long been concerns in those quarters about Obama’s positions on a variety of issues: his “bipartisan” rhetoric; his claim that Social Security is in “crisis”; his support for a residual troop commitment in Iraq; his relationship with anti-gay ministers; even his health care plan; have all drawn fire. He didn’t become the preferred candidate of the progressive netroots until the contest became a one-on-one fight with Hillary Clinton.
Even then, netroots enthusiasm for Obama was mainly attributable to appreciation for his revolutionary use of internet technologies to raise money and organize volunteers, and his early opposition to the Iraq war (compounded by hostility towards Clinton), rather than any general approbation of him as a progressive stalwart.
So all the current talk we are hearing, much of it from chortling conservatives, about the netroots love affair with Obama coming to an end, should be tempered with the understanding that for many, it was always a complicated relationship. Maybe some love has now been lost, particularly for netroots activists who did back Obama from the beginning. But what’s really emerging, or re-emerging, now is a partnernship based on cold political realities.

2 comments on “Learning to Live with the “New” Obama

  1. links on

    Umm, are you seriously telling us that the “movement” that gave Obama the nomination, didn’t really believe he was the real deal, the anti-Bush, the law giver? True many progressives, like Adolph Reed, never bought the hype, but the movement has been characterized by its unquestioning lack of critical perspective when it comes to the one figure they truly believed was the antithesis of all Bush stands for. That lack of perspective is coming back to bite a little now, but even now the movement remains mostly defensive of Obama despite his recenty concerning statements and votes. How may are asking themselves now if John Edwards would have voted for FISA or come out in favor of the death penalty for crimes other than murder? Few, I bet.

  2. ducdebrabant on

    On the other hand, if you criticize any of his positions, including the FISA vote, you get a little taste of the Vietnam era courtesy of intraparty enforcers. Decline to rationalize or support every single thing Obama does and you are giving aid and comfort to the enemy (McCain). Love the party or leave it, it boils down to. I never realized Democrats had to move to Canada for criticizing other Democrats.


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