Politics & Government

Liberal Democrats uneasy with Obama

In the weeks before the Oregon presidential primary in May, Martha Shade did what thousands of other people there did: She registered as a Democrat so she could vote for Barack Obama.

Now, however, after critics have accused Obama of shifting positions on issues including the war in Iraq, the Bush administration's program of wiretapping without warrants, gun control and the death penalty – all in what some view as a shameless play to a general election audience – Shade said she plans to switch back to the Green Party.

“I'm disgusted with him,” said Shade, an artist. “I can't even listen to him anymore. He had such an opportunity, but all this ‘audacity of hope' stuff, it's blah, blah, blah. For all the independents he's going to gain, he's going to lose a lot of progressives.”

Of course, that depends on how you define progressives.

As Shade herself noted, while alarm may be spreading among some Obama supporters, whether left-wing bloggers or purists holding Obama's feet to the fire on one issue or another, the reaction among others has been less than outrage.

For all the idealism and talk of transformation that Obama has brought to the Democratic Party – he drew a crowd of more than 70,000 to Oregon in May – there is also a wide streak of pragmatism, even among many grassroots activists, in a party long vexed by factionalism.

“We're frustrated by it, but we understand,” said Mollie Ruskin, 22. She grew up in Baltimore and is spending the summer in Oregon as a fellow with Politicorps, a program run by the Bus Project, a local nonprofit that trains young people to campaign for progressive candidates. “He's doing it so he can get into office and do the things he believes in.”

Bob Fertik, president of Democrats.com, a progressive Web site, started asking his readers last month to pledge money to an escrow fund for Obama, as opposed to contributing to him outright. The idea was to make Obama rethink his decision to support the Bush administration's wiretapping measure.

Obama initially said he would try to filibuster a vote, but on Wednesday he was among 69 senators who voted for the measure, which to many liberals represents a flagrant abuse of privacy rights. The legislation grants legal immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the wiretapping program.

So far, 675 people have pledged $101,375 to Fertik's escrow fund, money that theoretically would be donated to Obama once he showed a firm commitment to progressive values, Fertik said.

But Fertik also said that while Obama's change on the spying issue upset some supporters, it was not necessarily emblematic of a troubling shift to the center. He said he continues to support the senator, though he added, “We don't see the need to close our eyes and hold our noses until November.”

Many Obama supporters said the most vocal complaining about various policy positions was largely relegated to liberal bloggers and people who might otherwise support Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, or Dennis Kucinich, the liberal Ohio congressman who dropped out of the presidential race this year.

“I think it's accentuated by the fact that Obama's appeal is an appeal to idealism,” said Kari Chisholm, who runs a blog, blueoregon.com, and advises on Internet strategy for Democratic candidates. “They believe their ideology is the only idealism and Obama's is very mainstream. I'm not surprised they're getting a little cranky. They've always been kind of cranky. A mainstream Democrat has always been too mainstream for them.”

Some of Obama's supporters say he is less vulnerable to accusations of flip-flopping on issues because his campaign ultimately has been built on his biography and philosophy.

“I don't think the test on him is in an explicitly narrow set of checkboxes that have to get filled,” said Kevin Looper, executive director of Our Oregon, a liberal advocacy group. “I think it's about: Do his campaign and his message embody serious changes for the direction of the country?”

Looper and many other supporters said Obama is solid on core Democratic concerns such as the environment, social and economic justice and how to balance taxes among economic groups. Of course, his stands on more specific issues appeal to many supporters, too.

Shade, the Green-turned-Democrat-returned-Green voter, spoke about Obama while in her apartment, where she has placed homemade signs urging the impeachment of President Bush in her window. She said twice that the American political system is “rotten.”

“You realize,” Shade said, her voice fading with resignation, “that you're talking to somebody who's pretty far out of the mainstream.”