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Serenity Lost: Obama And The Netroots

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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 Moveon.org. "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.

Salon.com'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."

Correction: an earlier version implied that Glenn Greenwald referred to Obama supporters as "Obamabots." He did not.

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