An article by Peter Daou entitled Liberal Bloggers are Bringing Down the Obama Presidency has provided lots of media fodder for the past few days. Daou provides a short list of people including Glenn Greenwald, John Aravosis, Marcy Wheeler and myself who he says are "the crux of the problem for Obama":
Virtually all the liberal bloggers who have taken a critical stance toward the administration have one thing in common: they place principle above party. Their complaints are exactly the same complaints they lodged against the Bush administration. Contrary to the straw man posed by Obama supporters, they aren't complaining about pie in the sky wishes but about tangible acts and omissions, from Gitmo to Afghanistan to the environment to gay rights to secrecy and executive power.
Daou's piece offered a good rundown of some of the issues, but it got a lot of notice principally because it appeared at the right time, and the list of suspects was accurate enough that many journalists said "it'll do" as a source for what they already knew. White House sources make no secret about who is getting under their skin when speaking "off the record" with journalists, and we all hear about it every time they call us for comment.
But while I think there's a lot of truth in what Daou is saying, I disagree that what Obama is experiencing right now has to do with people on the left "turning" on him. I think Obama may perceive it that way, but in reality he's just living through the phenomenon of being President in an era of "big data," where passionate issue advocates can communicate with each other directly and immediately.
What Obama is facing, which other presidents have not, is moment-by-moment online documentation of the distance between his words and his actions by issue advocates on his own side. The right never held up any such yardstick to George Bush, and, when they did criticize him, it was usually in rant form. Greg Sargent has a good rundown of the various camps that often get conflated in the discussion of the "professional left", but what they have in common that George Bush-era conservatives did not is the practice of detailed process scrutiny. Thus, the right never really presented the challenges for Bush that the online left has for Obama.
In September of 2009, I wrote a piece on Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress called Trapped In the Gap Between Action and Rhetoric:
As long as the President keeps expressing his support for a public option, [we] can quite rightly say that we're only insisting on something Obama himself endorses, something he campaigned on.
Of course, the actions of the White House betray quite a different intent. The deals they have negotiated with health care industry stakeholders do not include a public plan, they don't believe they can back out of them without triggering a rush of lobbyist money to GOP coffers. At some point there will be a day of reckoning when the public understands that the public option is gone. The White House wants to stop their opponents -- and let's face it, progressives who are insisting on the inclusion of a public plan are at this point their opponents -- from being able to exploit that gap. Because every day that goes by the base gets more and more wedded to the promise of a public plan, encouraged by the positive rhetoric of the President himself. And it becomes that much harder for the White House to extract itself from the double bind they have created without paying a huge political price.
We boxed Obama in, quite consciously, and did it in a way that would not have been possible before the internet. It made it almost impossible for him to successfully claim a progressive "victory" on health care, the signature piece of legislation of his presidency. And it bothers him no end -- which is why he keeps mentioning it every time he engages in hippie punching.
One of our commenters at FDL recently wrote a pithy summation of the entire public option campaign:
The campaign for the public option was not actually a campaign to get the public optoin. It was but most realized fairly quickly that wasn't going to happen. So it was really about exposing the lies and duplicity of a WH which "negotiated" with PhRMA and the insurance industry, to give them everything they wanted, then blame it on the Republicans, or Joe Lieberman, or the stars, whatever. Obama has never, WILL never forgive the left for that. For not falling in line to make him look good, instead of doing what we've always done.
The last piece is important. This IS what the left has always done. We're just doing it in a different place, and with a different tool set that is much more efficient at breaking through the barrier that traditional media historically erected between elite action and public awareness.
In the past, presidents have been able to say they were doing one thing while doing another, and then hiding the details in an opaque process that the media neither understood nor cared to report. Liberal bloggers now used new media to explain those details and communicate them directly to people who care about a particular issue. Look at the comments section of any major media outlet's website. You'll see people talking about the "catfood commission," "Dan Choi," "Obama's assassination program" or his "PhRMA deal" or the fact that he "sold out" the public option. That didn't start on Meet the Press.
The people who care about particular issues take resonant bits of information and lay them at the feet of traditional media figures every day. I know I've personally seen people tweet "someone should ask Robert Gibbs X" only to hear a reporter actually do it hours later. It creates a rapid feedback cycle in the media that is much more difficult to control by practicing the "access" journalism that has been a mainstay of most recent administrations.
But the Obama White House is mistaking the symptom for the disease. These things only resonate with readers because people care about these issues, and individual bloggers develop followings to the extent that they reflect what large numbers of people are thinking and feeling.
The White House has viewed this as a war of personality cults, and thus their response has consistently been to try and discredit their critics rather than address their concerns. Most of these criticisms have been leveled not because change is happening "too slowly," as Obama would have people believe, but rather because he appears to have completely reversed many of the positions he took on the campaign trail. Obama's own words have been the most powerful tool against him in the battle for LGBT rights, civil liberties, health care or Social Security.
But the White House campaign went into overdrive when the President, the Vice President, Bill Clinton and Robert Gibbs entered the fray. The President is now making a direct appeal to his supporters to go after his critics, and they are faithfully regurgitating his talking points and attacking the "non-believers" across the internet in an attempt to shoot the messenger.
It's sort of a "techno-Pravda" game plan.
It's hard to believe that at this point in the election cycle, with so much on the line, that the President and his staff are obsessively focused on mauling a group of people almost nobody has ever heard of. To the extent that bloggers have any influence, it is with people who already care about civil liberties or health care or LGBT rights, and they supported Obama because he said he did too. When they feel that there is evidence that his convictions are not sincere, they choose the issue over the man. It has nothing to do with attachment to personalities.
But more to the point, this strategy of "attacking the messenger" represents a complete misread by the White House of the dynamics at play. As Melissa McEwan states so eloquently, the people who care about progressive issues haven't changed. And the only thing that will bring them around is when Obama matches his actions up with his rhetoric.
No campaign to "shoot the messenger" is ever successful when there's an endless supply of people willing to fill his (or her) shoes instantly. People whose families are being deported, people who can't get married, people who aren't getting the medical attention they need are not going to stop caring about these thing. And none of them will be moved in the slightest by a campaign waged by elites to paint them as "ingrates."
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