Learning to live with the "new" Obama

Amid the net-roots anger over Obama's vote for the FISA bill, some key activists are saying he has never been that progressive.

Published July 11, 2008 3:16PM (EDT)

Amid the anguish being expressed in the progressive net roots 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 Thursday titled "Why It's Important to Note That Obama Is NOT Liberal or Progressive."

After assessing Obama's policy positions, Stoller has this to say about the attitude progressives should have toward 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:

Overall 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 explaining a decision to withhold 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 net-roots activists needed to adopt a more distant and critical posture toward 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 net-roots 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 healthcare plan, have all drawn fire. He didn't become the preferred candidate of the progressive net roots until the contest became a one-on-one fight with Hillary Clinton.

Even then, net-roots 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 toward 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 net roots' 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 net-roots activists who backed Obama from the beginning. But what's really emerging, or reemerging, now is a partnership based on cold political realities.

By Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

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