Sunday, July 13, 2008

Obama supporters feel betrayed over his growing list of shifting policies


By Andrew Purcell

BARACK OBAMA has been accused of betraying his most loyal supporters, by voting in favour of an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) he had promised to block. Civil liberties groups say the bill, which aims to make it easier to monitor terrorist suspects, violates the constitution and legitimises government spying on ordinary Americans.

The revised act grants immunity from prosecution to phone companies who assisted the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping programme, something Obama swore to resist as recently as June. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, chief whip Dick Durbin and Hillary Clinton all opposed the bill. Its passage was a significant victory for Dick Cheney.

By far the biggest group at social networking site, with more than 23,000 members, is called Senator Obama - Please Vote No On Telecom Immunity - Get FISA Right. In defeat, user comments revealed a potentially damaging breach. Justin from Minnesota wrote: "it cost him my vote and I hope it will cost him the votes of many others." Alejandro from Seattle lamented that he "thought the whole point of the Obama campaign was to not be like other politicians".

Gail from New Jersey addressed the candidate directly: "You lost your most ardent supporters, your workers, your donors," she posted. The fundraising model that Obama has used so successfully, tapping 1.5 million supporters for an average of $197 (£99) each, depends on the goodwill of such activists. At an event in New York this week he admitted donations have been "a little slow".

Obama's shift on the surveillance issue was not an isolated incident. He has been steadily creeping towards the centre ground ever since he secured the Democratic nomination, repositioning himself as a moderate with cross-party appeal. To his left-wing base, a key element of his coalition, this is apostasy, a cynical abandonment of principles that calls his entire claim to be a progressive into question.

Obama has endorsed the Supreme Court's decision to overturn a handgun ban in Washington DC on the grounds that "if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe". He has criticised the same judges for limiting capital punishment to murder cases, arguing that child rape sometimes justifies the death penalty.

He has backed off from earlier criticism of free trade agreements, watered down his proposal to alter the tax structure so that the richest pay more, hinted he would introduce stringent mental health checks for women seeking late-term abortions and committed himself to continuing the Republican policy of channelling funding for community services through faith-based programmes.

The New York Times ran an editorial with the headline New And Not Improved. "We are not shocked when a candidate moves to the centre for the general election," it said. "But Mr Obama's shifts are striking because he was the candidate who proposed to change the face of politics, the man of passionate convictions who did not play old political games." A leader in The Economist disagreed, saying the only problem with his policy adjustments is that they are not centrist enough.

The suggestion that Obama has double-crossed his base to court conservative voters evidently stings, because he has been denying it at every opportunity. "The people who say this haven't apparently been listening to me," he told a town hall meeting in Georgia. "Don't assume that if I don't agree with you on something that it must be because I'm doing that politically. I may just disagree with you."

Republicans have certainly been listening, eager to call him a flip-flopper, the label that was so effective against John Kerry in 2004. John McCain's policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin said: "Barack Obama has made it increasingly difficult to take him at his word." Rich Lowry, editor of the right-wing National Review, asked: "Has there ever in recent political memory been so much calculation and bad faith by a politician who has made so much of eschewing both?"

McCain's about-turns on taxation, immigration and offshore drilling make it harder for him to level the charge of inconsistency at his rival, but his campaign has spotted an opening in Iraq. If Obama sticks to his proposal to withdraw American soldiers within 16 months, they will say he is ignoring improvements in security brought about by increased troop levels. If he changes his mind, they will portray him as indecisive. Last week, Obama said he would "refine" his position as necessary, but then hastily called a second press conference to reiterate his commitment to end the war.

Democrats traditionally run straight down the middle for president and almost always lose. Obama's critics on the left are worried that by talking tough on national security and stressing his socially conservative credentials, he is diluting his brand and taking his most motivated supporters for granted. Maintaining the enthusiasm of the students, baby-boomers and African-Americans who ensured his primary victories will be crucial.

Obama has apparently concluded that the perception he is dangerously liberal is the greatest threat to his candidacy. By this assessment, the repositioning has worked. In the latest survey by pollsters Rasmussen, the number of respondents who viewed him as "very liberal" had declined to 22% from a high of 36% in June. But the dangers of being seen as just another politician were illustrated elsewhere in the same poll: only 9% of Americans think Congress is doing its job properly, the lowest percentage ever.

Salon's editor-in-chief, Joan Walsh, described Obama's U-turn on FISA as "unforgivable" and wrote that she no longer admired him at all.

But later, in the same article, she acknowledged: "Every time I wonder whether I can ultimately vote for Obama in November, given all of his political cave-ins, McCain does something new to make sure I have to."

No comments: