When former Sen. John Edwards dropped out of the presidential race, the progressive Netroots took their affections to Barack Obama, defending him against attack from Hillary Rodham Clinton and others.
But with his support of a government surveillance bill that offers retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies — a bill that he vowed last year to filibuster — the honeymoon has ended.
Disappointed over his position on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the online activists feel jilted and betrayed and have taken to questioning his progressive credentials. One prominent blogger, Atrios, has even given him the moniker “Wanker of the Day.”
“He broke faith,” said Matt Stoller, a political consultant and blogger at OpenLeft.com. “Obama pledged to filibuster, and he is part of that old politics, in this case, that he said he wasn’t. It will spur us to challenge him.”
The FISA debate marks the presumptive Democratic nominee’s first serious break from the liberal Netroots in the general election. He is still their candidate, but the FISA issue has reignited skepticism among major bloggers, who had largely pushed aside doubts about Obama when Edwards, their favored candidate, ended his bid in February.
Obama’s post-partisan persona hasn’t always meshed so well with the noisy and contentious Netroots, and his rise to prominence has come without their full-throated support. He told reporters in February that he doesn’t read blogs and has long been viewed as cool to the Netroots — a notion that the candidate’s new media director, Joe Rospars, disputed this week at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, saying Obama was a favorite of the readers of the major bloggers.
Either way, the Netroots eventually took Obama’s side against Clinton, and some came to view him as a champion of progressive causes.
His stance on the FISA bill, however, has brought Obama back down to earth, in part because the liberal blogosphere cares more about civil liberties than many of the other traditional issues that have long dominated the Democratic agenda. While the mainstream media fixated on Obama’s decision to opt out of the public financing system — and newspaper editorial boards eviscerated him — the Netroots commended Obama for showing political savvy. After all, the readers of liberal blogs are many of the small donors who gave Obama reason to reject public financing.
FISA, however, was different. Many of the most popular progressive blogs built their following by mining anger toward President Bush, the Iraq war and what bloggers view as his disregard of the Constitution and the civil liberties guaranteed by it. By granting immunity to telecom companies, civil courts will likely dismiss lawsuits that might unearth details about the administration’s activities, eliminating an opportunity to hold Bush accountable.
“It angers the blogosphere to its core,” said Jane Hamsher, founder of the popular blog Firedoglake.com. “We want to be able to know: What did you do? If we can get that information, we can make sure they don’t do that again. We can get the public engaged.”
Obama’s decision to support the bill with the immunity provision was not surprising, she said. Republicans frame critics of such security measures as soft on terrorism, and the presumptive Democratic nominee probably does not want it used against him.
“[A] lot of people tried to convince themselves that he was a progressive hero, and I think they were disappointed,” Hamsher said. “You can feel a real shift in the zeitgeist online.”
Still, the disillusionment goes only so far. The liberal blogosphere’s most recognizable name, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of Daily Kos, said Monday on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann”: “Let’s be honest, it is either Obama or John McCain. So we really don’t have much of a choice.”
At stake for Obama in the FISA vote is the intensity of support for Obama, Moulitsas said.
“I don’t want to hear him talk about leadership. I don’t want to hear him talk about defending the Constitution. I want to see him do it,” he said. “If he does, it will increase the intensity and level of support he gets from base Democrats. If he doesn’t, we may worry he is just another one of these spineless Democrats who are more afraid of controversy in doing the right thing than they are in actually doing the right thing.”
Already, Blue America PAC, a liberal online fundraising group, says it has raised more than $320,000 to fund activities “holding our elected representatives responsible for rubber-stamping the most grievous aspects of the Bush Regime’s agenda.”
MoveOn.org has called upon its members to pressure Obama to “keep his word” and block the bill. Obama gave no indication that he would support a filibuster, and a press aide did not respond to requests for clarification on this point.
The Senate overwhelmingly rejected the filibuster attempt Wednesday, voting 80-15 to end debate and move to final passage Thursday. Obama, who was not present for Wednesday's test vote, is expected to vote for an amendment stripping out the immunity provision. But even if the effort fails, as it has in the past, Obama would likely back the underlying bill.
By taking this position, Obama is threading the needle between Republican charges that he is weak on security and the desires of the Democratic base. To allay critics’ claims that he is giving a pass to the Bush administration, Obama aides pointed to a provision in the bill that requires an inspector general’s review of the surveillance program.
“It is not all that I would want,” Obama said of the legislation, which was negotiated by congressional leaders of both parties. “But given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence-collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise but do so with a firm pledge that, as president, I will carefully monitor the program, review the report by the inspectors general and work with the Congress to take any additional steps I deem necessary to protect the lives — and the liberty — of the American people.”
Obama’s statement was viewed as a reversal from a pledge last year to oppose any bill with retroactive immunity for telecom companies.
But Obama told reporters Wednesday that the bill has changed from when that pledge was made, saying the latest version satisfied several of his concerns.
Dan Gerstein, a New York political consultant and former longtime aide to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), said Obama now needs to stand by his support of the bill, given Republican efforts to brand Obama as a “reflexive, partisan liberal.” “This is really an important initial test for Obama,” he said.
“People will be looking at this to see whether he has the strength and independence to stand up to his friends and a significant support base and say, ‘I think this is right, and I am going to hold firm in my position.’”
The Netroots will be watching Thursday as the Senate considers the bill — and whether Obama simply casts his vote or whether he takes a strong stand in a floor speech.
“The fear out there is that Obama is going to fail to live up to expectations on key issues, and that reinforces the notion that ‘uh-oh, we picked the wrong candidate,’ when the focus should really be on the fact that the Bush administration broke the law with the help of private companies,” said Warren Street, a blogger at the Blue Girl, Red State blog.