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Net Loss

Why liberal bloggers don't love Obama.

It was less than two years ago that Mark Warner hosted his nowlegendary bash for liberal bloggers––with its ice sculpture and $50,000 price tag––during the 2006 Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas. At the time, the Democratic former governor of Virginia was mulling a White House bid and looking for netroots support. Tom Vilsack, a fellow aspirant, also appeared at the convention, as did Bill Richardson. Hillary Clinton didn’t show, to the chagrin of many, but even she, a few weeks later, hired liberal blogger Peter Daou, and she made sure to swing by Yearly Kos the following year. The liberal blogosphere, it seemed, had become a key constituency for any Democrat seeking the White House.

On the surface, that should have been a good development for Barack Obama. Obama is, in some respects, the ideal candidate of the Yearly Kos contingent––an insurgent who opposed the Iraq war, generated grassroots enthusiasm, and built a massive online fund-raising apparatus. But the bloggers who champion these things have not all rallied around Obama. In fact, many are strikingly ambivalent about his candidacy. 

‘THIS RELATIONSHIP is frosty,” explains Micah Sifry, cofounder of techPresident, a blog that focuses on the interaction between candidates and the Web. “At various points in the campaign, Obama has said or done things that have antagonized progressive bloggers”––from calling Social Security a “crisis” to criticizing New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “I think his instincts are liberal, but his governing style may not be,” says Open Left blogger Matt Stoller, adding that Obama’s readiness to embrace conservatives and chastise his allies on the left have caused many bloggers to wonder how strongly he would fight for liberal priorities as president. “The point is,” Stoller adds, “I’m not sure. And this has been accentuated by the fact that no one [from the campaign] is talking to us.” 

Indeed, despite the areas of obvious affinity between Obama and the netroots, there are also areas of significant disagreement. His campaign themes––unity, bipartisanship––grate on liberal bloggers frustrated at the perceived unwillingness of mainstream Democrats to stand up to the Republican Party on issues ranging from Iraq to the Bush administration’s warrantless surveillance. “Our community tends to be filled with people who...are largely skeptical that it’s possible to reach across the aisle and get anything other than slapped for your efforts,” Jane Hamsher, of the blog Firedoglake, told me. 

In addition, though Obama bills himself as the candidate of change, many bloggers see him as an establishment figure, surrounded by the same old Democratic insiders who have long dominated the party. (In an online interview with blogger Josh Marshall, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas grumbled that “the usual D.C. consulting crowd” was advising Obama to run a “safe race.”) There’s Robert Gibbs, Obama’s communications director, who ran afoul of the netroots in 2003 when his 527 aired a grimy attack ad on Howard Dean that featured a photo of Osama bin Laden. There’s also Joe Rospars, Obama’s new-media director, who, bloggers grouse, refused to deal with the netroots during his stint at the Democratic National Committee. While Clinton and John Edwards both hired new-media people with longstanding ties to the blogging community––and Chris Dodd, who won raves from bloggers, brought his netroots liaisons into the campaign’s inner circle––Obama’s campaign mainly relied on Josh Orton, a former Air America producer, for blogger outreach. When Orton departed last October, many bloggers assumed it was because his efforts to engage the netroots had been thwarted from within the campaign. (For the record, Orton disputes this: “It’s not like there was some memo from senior campaign management nixing blog outreach--many people were open and engaged,” he told me.) 

Obama himself has occasionally appeared to go out of his way to suggest he doesn’t much care for liberal bloggers. He once told New York magazine that he found Daily Kos too predictable; and, in 2005, after bloggers criticized Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy for voting in favor of John Roberts’s Supreme Court nomination, Obama wrote a testy response on Moulitsas’s site, arguing that the combative approach urged by the netroots “misreads the American people.” 

The campaign’s relationship with the liberal blogosphere seemed to reach a low point in recent months. First, last fall, Obama came under heavy fire from blogs for appearing at a campaign event with Donnie McClurkin, a gay-bashing minister. Then there was the spat with Krugman over health insurance mandates. Then his line on Social Security. The campaign’s lack of outreach to bloggers may have hindered its ability to resolve some of these feuds. Take the McClurkin affair, which was most prominently flogged by John Aravosis, a popular blogger and gay activist who says he was disappointed the campaign never contacted him. “Had they asked, we could have had some serious discussions to save them face and try to figure out how to advance our community’s interests in some way,” he told me. Says blogger Steve Benen, “My sense is [the campaign wasn’t] fully aware of the discontent during that rough patch.” 

OF COURSE, irking the major bloggers won’t sink Obama’s campaign. And he still has ample support both from midsized blogs and many blog readers--he consistently does well in Daily Kos and MoveOn straw polls. This is partly due to the fact that there’s no clear alternative for the netroots to rally around: Dodd never had a chance of winning; Edwards remains a long shot; and Clinton is still widely seen as the hawkish establishment candidate. (Indeed, Moulitsas has said he will reluctantly vote for Obama by “process of elimination.”) And, in recent weeks, Obama’s campaign has been trying to repair its bridge to the blogosphere. Several bloggers told me that Obama’s new netroots liaison has done a better job of reaching out. 

How this relationship evolves could help clarify the source of Obama’s tension with liberal bloggers: Has he brushed them off––along with the Krugmans of the world––to send a signal to the press about the sincerity of his post- partisanship? Will he edge closer to the netroots to prove that he can be a pugilist, too? These aren’t just questions about a constituent group. They could help decipher the shape of an Obama presidency.

This article appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the magazine.