Ari Melber | The Nation

Ari Melber

Ari Melber

Law, politics, new media and beats, rhymes and life.

Poll: Young People Back Obama, Disapprove of His Major Policies

A new Harvard poll finds that President Obama is holding on to his strongest supporters, voters under 30, though they overwhelmingly oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan.

About 58 percent of young voters approve of Obama's job performance, while his approval among all voters recently dipped below 50 percent for the first time. About 66 percent of young voters oppose a build-up in Afghanistan, though this survey was in the field before the President's Westpoint speech.

In fact, the most striking part of the new poll is how young voters disapprove of Obama on issues across the board, yet still support his overall job performance. A briefing from Harvard's Institute of Politics (IOP) crunches the numbers:


The IOP's fall poll indicates 18-29 year-olds are now in line with the general population: a majority of young adults approve of [Obama] generally but disapprove of his handling of major issues asked about in the poll... A majority of 18-29 year-olds also disapprove of his handling of every major issue asked about:


Afghanistan (55% disapprove, 41% approve)

health care (52% disapprove, 44% approve)

the economy (52% disapprove, 44% approve)

Iran (53% disapprove, 42% approve)

and the federal budget deficit (58% disapprove, 38% approve) (emphasis added).


Almost a year into his presidency, it is remarkable that Obama can retain overall support from these base voters even though they disapprove of his leadership on "every major issue." Obama's primary and general election victories were propelled by youth voters, who flocked to him by a whopping 34-point margin over McCain. That margin was staggering by any standard. It was 27 points higher than Kerry's margin in the prior election. And in 2008, Obama's youth edge was more than five times his margin within his next best performing cohort -- voters between 30 and 44, who favored him by 6 points.

Political operatives often stress that support is distinct from enthusiasm, however, and campaigns excel with an excited base for fundraising and volunteering. Somehow, Obama is doing alright among most young voters on that score, too. Most young people who volunteered for Obama last year say they would be "very likely" to re-up in 2012, at 55 percent, and another 30 percent said they would be "somewhat likely."

Finally, beyond Obama, the financial crisis has not made young Americans hungry for more regulation. About 57 percent said "government regulation of Wall Street" should stay at the same level or be reduced, while only 39 percent backed "more regulation."


With Harvard's Help, Congress May Keep Bloggers Out of Jail

It's hard out here for a blogger.

And hard for online journalists, unemployed new media producers, and just about anyone else dabbling in journalism without professional backing.

Beyond the basic financial challenges, there is scant legal help for members of the new media, even though they face the same complex, pricey legal threats as traditional media. Plus extra threats -- like government attempts to out anonymous bloggers, which can cost a lot to fight in court.

On Thursday, however, it just got a little easier out here for a blogger. (h/t Jon Stewart.) The smart folks at Harvard's Citizen Media Law Project are launching a program of free legal services for online and citizen media. And I'm taking the liberty of substituting the word "free" for pro bono in their announcement -- us lawyers have trouble kicking the Latin:


We are [launching the] Online Media Legal Network (OMLN), a new [free] initiative that connects lawyers and law school clinics from across the country with online journalists and digital media creators who need legal help. Lawyers participating in OMLN will provide qualifying online publishers with [free] and reduced fee legal assistance on a broad range of legal issues, including business formation and governance, copyright licensing and fair use, employment and freelancer agreements, access to government information, pre-publication review of content, and representation in litigation.


New media experts immediately applauded the move. NYU professor Jay Rosen said he supports the program because it is "trying to level the playing field for independent online producers."

The program launches just as Congress is on the verge of strengthening reporting protections not only for traditional journalists, but for bloggers as well.

A new draft shield law, supported by President Obama, would scuttle government subpoenas against unpaid bloggers in instances when the forced disclosure of a source was outweighed by the public interest. The law would benefit professional journalists and amateur bloggers. Of course, it helps to have a lawyer around to enforce those rights.


With research by Shakthi Jothianandan.

Newsweek Taps Bush Aide For Obama Reporting (Updated)

See if you can follow this logic.

A recent article in Newsweek states that Democrats could have won a "very significant number of Republican votes in Congress" for the stimulus -- had there only been a "meaningful tax-cut component." Political journalism is often imaginative, but this verges on delusion. After all, Obama labored to add about $280 billion in tax cuts to the stimulus -- over objections from many Democrats -- and still netted zero Republican votes in the House. Then, the piece asserts that Obama has no "coattails," based on 2009 elections, and reports "early signs of Obama fatigue are emerging." (Again, another observer might note that Democrats have won all 5 special congressional elections this year.) The article also predicts that gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey "will" make some Democrats "very nervous" about health care reform, which is a "political risk" for the party.

"We appear to be witnessing the beginnings of a significant Republican revival," continues the piece, bringing home its quirky counter-narrative. Lucky for struggling Democrats, however, this Newsweek item closes with some free political advice. "Liberals in Washington would do well to let go of the Republican breakdown narrative," notes the final sentence, "and pull back to the center--or suffer the consequences."

It's the kind of article that might leave you wondering if the author simply works for the G.O.P.

Newsweek's byline states that the writer, Yuval Levin, is "editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center." It all sounds quite journalistic and non-partisan. But Levin is also a former aide to President George W. Bush. (He served on the White House domestic policy staff as recently as 2006). If anything, this government experience makes Levin's political analysis more interesting. Why keep it from readers?

As it happens, Levin's first piece for Newsweek, back in March, was prominently billed as Obama analysis from "a Bush veteran." So I put the question to Newsweek, and spokesperson Katherine Barna shares their rationale:


Levin's previous article for Newsweek involved the issue of bioethics, his primary focus while at the White House. He disclosed his prior position in the body of that piece. His most recent article was not related to that topic. We believe our readers are aware of Mr. Levin's background, and are able to discern a reported news article from argument, which Levin's recent piece was. (Emphasis added.)


Really? Does anyone think most readers keep track of White House staff by name? Or that readers memorized Levin's affiliation from March? It's hard to tell if the magazine somehow believes this argument, or just doesn't care that it's not very believable.

And, of course, the whole point of a byline is to provide "background." Levin's article already lists two affiliations for background -- they are just less relevant than his affiliation serving in a senior position in Obama's opposing party, since Levin is purporting to advise "liberals in Washington."

While we're at it, Levin has also been leading the fight to squash Obama's health care plans. He coauthored a June column with another former G.O.P. official, Bill Kristol, declaring, "ObamaCare is wrong. It should and can be defeated." Levin fails to disclose that position during his Newsweek health care coverage, which argues that reform is a "political risk" for Democrats, (his political opponents).

Now yes, people may be so accustomed to paltry disclosure and conflicts of interest that this all draws a collective yawn. Surely there are bigger problems to blog today. And so on. But it is striking that, as public views of the press hit 20-year lows, major media organizations still will not take responsibility for giving their readers basic transparency and information about contributors. And it's especially rich when the proffered explanation is that readers already know.

Update: Since filing this piece, several other outlets have weighed in:

Newsweek defends ignoring Obama critic's ties to Bush, Raw Story

The Washington Post Company does not understand disclosure, Media Matters

Melber questions Newsweek disclosure for Bush aide, Politico

The Horror and The Outrage, RCP Blog

Obama's Organizing Army Finally Targets Republicans

In an unusually aggressive move, Organizing for America announced Wednesday that it is mobilizing its volunteer army to confront the 32 Republican legislators who voted against health care reform -- despite representing districts that voted for Obama.

The pressure campaign is designed "to remind these members that voters in their districts voted for change last year," explain OFA officials, "and urge them to reconsider their position when the House votes again on a final bill later this year."

The program calls on OFA activists to visit the district offices of their members. OFA officials say the effort will begin "as early as" Thursday and continue through next week. At the height of the presidential campaign, OFA's supporter list topped 13 million, making it the largest political network of its kind.

OFA Director Mitch Stewart describes the effort as the more confrontational side of bipartisan promise in the Obama era.

"The message was clear in these districts: Americans want change, and they expect their Representatives to work with President Obama and reach across the aisle to help deliver it," he said. Last weekend's GOP opposition to health care reform shows that these members are standing "with the insurance companies and right wing pundits to put politics above doing the right thing," he added.

That's unusually sharp language from OFA, which has prioritized positive lobbying appeals and "thank you" messages to Congress thus far. (OFA's homepage currently features fireworks and splashy invitations to "thank your member of Congress," which is the topline message for people who don't live in one of the 32 districts.) For some time, there has been rumbling among Obama supporters and the political digeratti about OFA holding back too much, and asking supporters to take "actions" that were purely symbolic.

Back in May, actually, I argued that OFA should be more aggressive, more willing to target Republicans by geography, and more careful with soliciting symbolism:


...asking millions of Obama's strongest supporters to simply sign petitions, regardless of their location, ambition and ability, is surely redundant and probably wasteful. Take an activist in a Democratic House district in a Blue state -- why should she be pressuring Congress if her representatives are already backing Obama's plan? (If anything, those members would be willing to go further towards single-payer.) A blanket national petition drive is redundant for many supporters, and it fails to target people in the areas where more visible pressure is desperately needed.


Imagine, for example, if OFA specifically rallied its Republican and independent voters in the [34] G.O.P. districts that Obama won last year -- areas that endorsed his platform but are still represented by Republican incumbents. Imagine a Pennsylvania-focused campaign to make health care a bigger issue for Arlen Specter...


Still a good idea, I think, and in politics, timing can be everything.

The entire OFA email text for these targeted districts is below.


Friend --


A little over a year ago, the congressional district you live in voted to send Barack Obama to the White House and Rep. to Congress. The message was clear: Rep. 's constituents want change, and expect Rep. to work with President Obama and reach across the aisle to help deliver it.

Last weekend, Rep. was called upon to do just that, in the historic vote on health reform. The vote offered a clear choice: Support a bill which draws upon ideas from both parties to guarantee 's district residents secure, affordable health coverage without adding a cent to the deficit, or stand with the insurance companies and right wing pundits to put politics above doing the right thing and stand in the way of history. Unfortunately, Rep. made the wrong choice.

Insurance company lobbyists are constantly visiting congressional offices in Washington, and Rep. may be starting to forget the voters back home. There's one last upcoming vote in the House of Representatives before health reform can become law, so there's still time to remind Rep. what your district wants by arranging a visit of your own.

Can you stop by Rep. 's local office, in ? You can use our simple tool to find the office closest to you, and sign up for a time in the next few days to drop by and let someone on Rep. 's staff know that you are counting on Rep. to support health reform in the final vote.Drop by a local office

(If our records are incorrect, and you don't live in 's district, click here to update your address.)

Your voice is especially powerful in a district like yours where the voters support President Obama and want reform. Rep. must understand that caving to the well-heeled lobbyists in D.C. has consequences at the ballot box back home. And if Rep. stands up, reaches out, and supports the change district residents need, the voters will see that, too.

If you've never visited a local congressional office before, don't worry. No experience is necessary -- we'll give you all the materials you'll need to prepare. This is not about confrontation -- it's simply about expressing your opinion and being heard.

Over 65,000 fellow OFA supporters made office visits like this last August, and we know they can make a tremendous impact. While insurance company lobbyists can swarm the offices in D.C., back in the district ordinary citizens have the loudest voice. When folks like you take the time to show up in person, tell your story, and ask for change, elected officials take notice.

There's still time for Rep. to decide where to stand before the final vote, but not much.

Please sign up for an office visit in , and pass this on to your neighbors so they can join you:


Democracy is not a spectator sport. And, right now, we need you in the game.

Thanks for making it happen,


Mitch StewartDirectorOrganizing for America

P.S. -- Please note: our online tool will help you find and plan a time to go to the office, but it can't automatically contact Rep. 's staff or let them know you're coming. You don't need an official appointment to stop by your representative's office and voice your opinion, but if you want to set one up you must call ahead or contact them separately.


Obama, Democrats Face Liberal Fundraising Boycott

Politico's lead story today tracks how both progressive and conservative activists are using intramural fundraising threats to challenge the party establishment.

For Democrats, the fight is about accountability for campaign promises. For Republicans, sophisticated grassroots fundraising is a tool in the ideological squabbles over new congressional candidates and party leaders. The story suggests conservative strategists have led the way:


For months, most of the action was on the Republican side, where conservative activists targeted the National Republican Senatorial Committee for its recruitment of moderate candidates and the National Republican Congressional Committee for its role in supporting a liberal GOP nominee in an upstate New York special election. But now Democratic officials are also feeling the lash, with the [DNC] coming under fire for allegedly not working hard enough on a recent Maine ballot initiative to repeal same-sex marriage and the [DCCC] taking flak for supporting incumbents who voted against the health care bill. In each case, activists have dispensed with the pleasantries and gone straight to the committees' wallets--a move guaranteed to raise alarms at party headquarters.


Actually, liberal online activists have been using donor strikes for a long time, around issues ranging from torture to campaign finance reform to health care. (And since Democratic candidates rely more on low dollar online donations than the G.O.P, these efforts can get more traction on the Left.) What's different now, however, is that the current wave of strikes and rumblings on gay rights might turn into an ad-hoc, financially relevant coalition.

Unlike other donor strikes by a single blog or organization, the "Don't Ask, Don't Give" campaign is swiftly attracting allies and attention in the political media -- including that lead Politico article today. (Obama's top aides pay attention to Politico, even though they claim otherwise, as David Plouffe's new book revealed.) Some of the allies are explicitly striking for gay rights, like blogger and pundit Jane Hamsher, The Stranger's Dan Savage and blogger Pam Spaulding, while others are pushing strikes against Democratic Party committees based on broader grievances about Democrats voting against core party priorities, such as health care. Daily Kos blogger Markos Moulitsas recently told his readers to "skip any donations to the DCCC," in retaliation for the House Dems who tried to scuttle health care reform. (See more from my colleague Ari Berman on those "Just Say No Democrats.")

In all the progressive debates about the Obama era, from wonky panels to the Sunday shows to local coffee shops, the atavistic question is how to support The President and push for bolder reform. Fundraising activism is only one tool -- not even viable for most citizens -- but it increasingly looks like a way to amplify policy pressure and get Washington's attention between elections.

Update: ActBlue's Adrian Arroyo writes in to stress that while boycotts are "largely invisible," groups like DFA and PCCC are using ActBlue to run more targeted fundraising campaigns to address lawmakers. "Since Monday, they've raised over $100,000 to reward Democrats who took a risky stand for healthcare and fund advertising campaigns to pressure those who voted to kill it," he writes. "It's not so much a boycott as a change of venue," Arroyo argues, crediting efforts to pressure Sen. Landrieu and Rep. Sustak for generating "rapid response" and political consequences in the evolving health care debate.


With research by Shakthi Jothianandan

Video: Michelle Obama Hits Sesame St., Republicans Slam Oscar

Sesame Street hits the airwaves for its 40th season on Tuesday, with a guest appearance by First Lady and Gardener-in-Chief Michelle Obama.

In the segment, Ms. Obama huddles with Elmo, Big Bird and several children to go over the fine points of seed-planting. Elmo loves cucumbers, it turns out. Ms. Obama has appeared on Sesame Street before, in a "healthy habits" segment with Elmo in May.

There's no word yet on whether Obama critics while reprise their complaints about exposing children to the First Family -- The President's speech to students drew plenty of mock outrage -- but some conservatives were recently slamming Sesame Street for a scene where Oscar The Grouch (arguably) spoofs Fox News. Both videos are below.

Twitter Tweaks Social Media with New Lists Feature

Twitter, the over-hyped, under-appreciated social network for sharing chit-chat and links, just launched a tool enabling users to create their own lists on the site. The Journal explains the basics:


The new feature allows Twitter users to organize the people they follow and streamline their feeds. Others can then follow their lists, sparing them the time of hunting for individual Twitterers with shared interests


So what, right?

The feature could be consequential, however, because it devolves a bit more media and social influence to users.

Previously, Twitter essentially held the market on recommending users, through its official list of suggested users. Making that list would net a user hundreds of thousands of followers -- turning the micro-site into a broadcasting portal with the reach of cable news. Landing on the list is so valuable, in fact, one state's election commission is examining whether such social media activity should be regulated. (California has several pols on the big list, with follower counts topping 900,000.)

The new lists enable people to curate and aggregate their own recommendations. Then other users can follow the entire group, or surf a list through a dedicated section of Twitter, which is accessible to people who never even signed up with the service. (This may please Nation commenter Mask, our resident luddite.)

For example, The Nation's Twitter account now hosts a list of Nation contributors. I just created a politics and media list of people worth checking out on Twitter. And users are already innovating ways to tap the list feature for activism and political shaming -- human rights advocate Bob Fertik launched a list tracking journalists who he accuses of enabling torture and war crimes.

Apart from influence and recommendations, this feature also breaks digital ground for live, communal conversations. Now, a national organization could invite its members on Twitter for real-time reaction to a big event, like a presidential speech. That already happens on Twitter, but primarily through new, social networks of people -- not across the social or organizational graphs of offline groups.

How Many Experts Declared Public Option Dead?

As the Senate moves towards including some form of public option in health care reform, it is worth remembering all the Washington "experts" who already declared the public option dead.

The list is long, distinguished, sometimes surprising and, thanks to the open source web, the list is growing. A diarist at DailyKos, "BrookylnBadBoy," just began counting. It ranges from bearish Senators (Kent Conrad) to Republican operatives (Brad Blakeman, Dana Perino) to sympathetic progressives (Nate Silver, Jane Hamsher) to, naturally, a long list of professional pundits (Klein, Gergen, Cillizza, Brooks, O'Donnell, Krauthammer, O'Reilly). You can add to your own nominations over at "Daily Kos," or here in our comments section.

Backing Obama, MoveOn Urges Congressional Dems to Join Fox Fight

MoveOn.org jumped into the battle between Fox News and the Obama White House on Tuesday, urging its 5 million members to call on Congressional Democrats to stay off the network for the rest of the year -- the same timetable announced by the White House.

"To draw attention to its biased coverage, President Obama will not appear on FOX for the rest of this year," notes a MoveOn email, citing recent reporting by The Times. "It's about time Democrats stood up to FOX," continues the missive, which calls on MoveOn members to sign a petition "asking Democrats to support President Obama's stance by staying off FOX as long as he does."

While Obama aides have forcefully singled out Fox for two weeks running, Congressional Democrats have been oddly subdued, as The Hill recently reported:


In the House and Senate, Democrats who pledged to follow the administration's near-boycott of Fox were hard to find, although many expressed support for Obama's stance. And there is no evidence of any joint strategy by Democrats at either side of Pennsylvania Avenue to coordinate their efforts against Fox.


Pointing to that article, MoveOn argues that "Democrats will only find the courage to join Obama if they hear from enough concerned voters."

Media Matters, another liberal group, also dialed up its efforts against Fox on Tuesday, releasing a new web ad cataloging how the network's daytime "news" programming echoes opinionated and sometimes inaccurate content from its evening "opinion" programming.

Caught On Tape: Obama Adviser Explains How To Control Media

White House Communications Director Anita Dunn made headlines last week for calling out Fox News, now she's drawing attention for comments she made about how the Obama campaign managed to control and route around the traditional press. You can bet this video is going viral. (Embedded below).

In footage from a January conference, Dunn candidly explains the campaign's disciplined emphasis on disintermediation:


The reality is that whether it was a David Plouffe video or an Obama speech ... a huge part of our press strategy was focused on making the media cover what Obama was actually saying -- as opposed to why the campaign was saying it, what the tactic was.... One of the reasons we did so many of the David Plouffe videos was not just for our supporters, but also because it was a way for us to get our message out without having to actually talk to reporters. We just put that out there and make them write what Plouffe had said -- as opposed to Plouffe doing an interview with a reporter. So it was very much we controlled it, as opposed to the press controlled it. And it did not always make us popular with the press... increasingly by the General Election, very rarely did we communicate through the press anything that we didn't absolutely control.


The political establishment -- from top reporters to rival campaigns -- was slow to grasp this dynamic during the actual campaign. Back in January 2008, for example, Obama broke several viewership records on YouTube, reaching voters directly, without comment from the press or countermeasures by other candidates:


Obama was the only presidential candidate to tape a rebuttal to President Bush's State of the Union for YouTube.... [it] was the most watched clip in the world... The public has shown overwhelming and sustained interest in hearing from Obama directly. This is the third Obama video to shoot into YouTube's top three in the past 10 days -- past clips of naked celebrities and Scientology rants -- and the first video that was shot specifically for web viewers, rather than broadcasting documentary footage of a speech.... The traditional media has been slow to grasp Obama's YouTube surge. (There has not been a single article in a major newspaper about the new records in the last 10 days.) YouTube politics are largely covered for gaffes (Macaca) and attacks (1984 ad). But the press is starting to notice the flipside of the Obama Campaign's communication strategy. It's the part that affects them. As the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports in a new article:



In an age of all-out political warfare, the Obama campaign is a bit of an odd duck: It is not obsessed with winning each news cycle. [Obama] remains a remote figure to those covering him, and his team, while competent and professional, makes only spotty attempts to drive its preferred story lines in the press... Obama often goes days without taking questions from national reporters... the absence of a senior official traveling with the press is a sign of benign neglect.... Newsweek correspondent Richard Wolffe [adds] "The contact is limited. . . . They see the national media more as a logistical problem than a channel for getting stuff out."


So reporters are noticing that Obama is not using them to get stuff out. As a presidential candidate, of course, he is getting tons of stuff out. But whenever possible, he is routing around the filters and gatekeepers so that he can speak directly to voters.

It is a classic disintermediation approach.

The campaign events, speeches and clips are targeted to reach the voting public and bypass media framing. Kurtz describes how a Times reporter finally confronted Obama on a recent trip with a question -- about whether Bill Clinton was getting "inside his head." It's the kind of vapid media framing that annoys candidates and voters alike. And apparently, many people would rather hear Obama speak substantively in response to the State of the Union than hear him take strategy questions. There is a potential downside here, of course. The media does not usually like being disintermediated.


I wrote that in January, though at the time, no Obama aides would confirm the strategy on the record. So Dunn's blunt assessment is illuminating -- at least from the insidery lens of political media -- to see how the upper echelons of the campaign prioritized primary sourced messaging over the tactical coverage that dominates political news.

Her conference video continues:


Senator Obama himself did a lot of local television. We went to as much live television as posisble. So it couldn't be edited when it came to him -- it was live. So that he could speak in a longer than 12-second soundbite; So that what the voters heard we determined, as opposed to some editor in a TV station. But we went to alternative media a great deal.... One of the reason the website works so well is we used opportunities in the traditional media to drive people online, to basically say: 'That's where you can get more information; That's where you can get updated information.'


Notice that Dunn's emphasis is not the conventional description of Obama's web success, which focuses on (impressive) fundraising and field developments. She is interested in leveraging the reach of broadcast media to recruit and transfer audiences towards the campaign, as a primary source of media itself.

Dunn's conference video was buried on YouTube, racking up only 300 views on a Spanish language account in the 9 months since it was uploaded. It got a second life on Sunday night, however, when the sensationalist conservative website WorldNetDaily touted it in an overheated article that reads like it's from a Right Wing issue of The Onion:


OBAMA WATCH CENTRALWhite House boasts: We 'control' news mediaCommunications chief offers shocking confession to foreign government


It always goes back to the foreign stuff, apparently. The article also echoes Glenn Beck's counter-attack -- the Fox anchor responded to Dunn's criticism of the network by noting that she once quoted Mao in an educational address. (The horror!)

Of course, it's a little rich that this footage about routing around sensational media is only surfacing because sensational media is counter-attacking Dunn for her criticisms of sensational media.

As she explains in the same video, however, "thanks to YouTube, anything you say you should expect to be on YouTube."


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