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Ari Melber | The Nation

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Ari Melber

Ari Melber

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

How the Obama Campaign's New iPhone App Really Works

The Obama campaign launched a new app on Tuesday, an ambitious effort to bring the tools of a local field office to iPhones across the country.

The app marks one of those potentially bland campaign developments that—unlike the weekly gaffes that draw so much media attention—could actually move a lot of votes in November. Obama’s app is unusual because it melds technology and field organizing more than any other political campaign, including Obama’s earlier efforts.

This is the first time that voter canvassing lists have been provided to volunteers through an app, another step in the campaign’s attempt to deputize volunteers with responsibilities traditionally reserved to political staff. (These include the “super volunteers” that Obama field guru Jon Carson credits for unprecedented turnout operations in Ohio last cycle.) Now volunteers can not only download local field resources, they can upload their results in real time, to track whether a voter backs Romney or report the phone number of a resident who registered to vote for the first time. Those data enter Obama’s virtual field database, called “Dashboard,” and are synced with the campaign’s programs for voter persuasion and turnout.

Imagine a volunteer knocking on a door. Now, instead of taking notes on a clipboard, delivering them to a field office and waiting for a staffer to enter the data, the volunteer simply punches results into an iPhone. Pressing the digit “3” indicates that a voter is undecided, for example, while a “2” conveys that the person is leaning towards Obama. And nabbing a “1” means the volunteer found a fellow strong supporter. (The number system tracks the usual scale that field campaigns used before the web—the origin of the saying that good organizers turn “twos to ones.”) Or, after a more detailed chat, a volunteer can upload extra notes that the campaign might use to tailor its persuasion or mobilization efforts to that individual. A “3” might receive persuasion arguments about the president’s tax cuts, while a “1” usually gets a mobilization message—the location of polling places, perhaps, or reminders about voter ID requirements.

If that sounds like a bunch of work, that’s because the app was not designed to be entertaining. “This app isn’t about being flashy,” emphasizes Teddy Goff, the campaign’s digital director. “It’s about giving you the tools you need to make the biggest possible difference between now and Election Day.”

The fusion of field targeting and decentralized volunteering online is on display in Ohio, a crucial battleground state. Volunteers can log on to Dashboard and use a phone call program that pinpoints residents who opposed restrictions on collective bargaining rights for unions.

“Last year Governor Kasich waged an attack on our Ohio teachers, firefighters and police officers,” reads the official script. “You signed the petition against Issue 2,” the script notes, and for respondents who are undecided, it suggests saying, “It’s time to say no to Mitt Romney’s anti-worker agenda.” Exclamation points are optional. But if a given volunteer doesn’t feel like slamming Mitt, they can choose from a dropdown of several different targeting programs. The labor message is from a plan called “No On Mitt,” while people who prefer friendlier terrain can choose the list of “Environmentalists for Obama.”

All this technology is a breakthrough, but of course, the big question is whether enough people will use it.

I asked Obama campaign officials in Chicago, who reiterated a policy of withholding participation rates during the election. But there are hints in the public data.

Last cycle, more than 1 million people used Obama’s text message program, which looks rudimentary compared to the new app. Another 13 million signed up for e-mail, the largest campaign e-mail list in American history, and a key to the campaign’s fundraising success. This cycle, visitors to BarackObama.com have surged since Republicans settled on a nominee—from about 3 million unique visitors in April to 4.7 million in June, according to rough estimates from Compete.com. (That’s three times the traffic for the White House website and five times Romney’s take in June.) So a core group of engaged supporters is still out there—a metric that differs from the enthusiasm decline among the broader Democratic electorate. (Enthusiasm has dropped about eighteen points since the same point four years ago, according to Gallup’s polling in July 2008 and 2012.)

Meanwhile, Romney’s campaign still lags behind in both its raw technology and online mobilization. His campaign app is not currently built for actually registering or turning out voters. In fact, “it serves largely as a photo-sharing tool that allows users to add pro-Romney phrases—like ‘I’m a mom for Mitt’—to a picture before posting it to Twitter or sharing it on Facebook,” as the New York Times’s Michael Shear reported.

Romney’s aides have not built an online army on par with Obama’s, and they seem to think they can win without one. That is not a far-fetched premise. After all, Obama is the only presidential candidate who ever scaled the Internet as a platform for recruiting both dollars and voters. He is betting that he can do that again, and pushing even more responsibility—and work—down through the campaign hierarchy and onto volunteer supporters. He needs them.

Update: On the web fundraising front, meanwhile, the Obama campaigned released a new video showing the president firing up a laptop to make an online donation to his own campaign. (“Employer: United States of America.”) The video has a full-throated pitch from the president, saying he “depends” on low-dollar donations of five and ten dollars.

Images courtesy of Obama and Romney campaigns.

Presidential Debates Respond to Campaign for Women Moderators

If past is prologue, this year’s presidential debates could be another all-male affair. Even leaving aside the men running for office, a female journalist has not been tapped as a solo moderator of a presidential debate in twenty years—despite all the other strides that women continue to make in politics and media. That might be about to change.

A new campaign calling for “a woman moderator” for the presidential debates has drawn over 115,000 supporters online, through the social action website Change.org, and the Commission on Presidential Debates is taking notice. Janet Brown, the commission’s executive director, told The Nation she knew of the petition’s popularity and her colleagues “welcome” the input “regarding moderator selection.”

The petition, which was started by three high school students in New Jersey, Emma Axelrod, Sammi Siegeland and Elena Tsemberis, casts the paucity of female moderators as an issue of equality. “We were shocked to find out that it has been twenty years since a woman last moderated a presidential debate,” the petition notes, in reference to the 1992 debate led by ABC News’s Carole Simpson. The students started the effort in conjunction with their civics class, and it is now “the largest elections-related petition” on Change.org, according to Michael Jones, the site’s deputy campaign director. A related effort on UltraViolet.org, a new organizing platform for women’s rights, has drawn another 50,000 supporters.

Siegel, one of the three students who started the effort, says she hopes all the support will draw the attention of the debate organizers and the candidates. "We have not gotten a response from the Presidential Debate Commission," she told The Nation, adding, "I think that the next step is to directly contact the presidential campaigns, Obama and Romney, themselves."

Jennifer Pozner, the executive director of Women in Media and News, credits the petition as a “crucial awareness-raising tool” to demonstrate that we “have been backsliding for twenty years where women in broadcast political journalism are concerned.” At a recent presentation to a large media conglomerate, Pozner said that even top media executives had no idea how few women journalists have been asked to moderate the debates. “I told them it had been twenty years,” she recalled, “and several thought I was wrong.” Pozner believes that putting “a woman in the anchor chair in front of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney” is a symbolic and visible way to counter “decades of marginalization.” Yet audience pressure could have even less impact on this issue than on media companies generally, Pozner argues, because the “debate commission is one of the least democratic institutions in America.”

The commission does not claim to be democratic. It is one of those remarkably influential private hurdles in presidential politics, like the Ames straw poll, that wields tremendous power by precedent. The commission has no formal authorization from the government or the press to monopolize general election debates, but it has done just that since 1988. (Even Google failed when it tried to challenge the commission’s role in 2008.) The commission is backed by both major parties at the highest level; four former presidents have served as honorary co-chairs and the acting chairs are party loyalists. In all, the board and co-chairs are comprised of eleven people—including two women.

Yet as the person in charge of the process, Brown strongly disputes criticism of both the commission’s approach and its record on selecting women journalists.

Every cycle, she explains, they look for moderator candidates “who have covered the campaigns and the candidates extensively and are thoroughly familiar with their positions, who have extensive experience in live hard news TV broadcasts, and who will understand their job is to facilitate the conversation with the candidates, and not be an additional participant.”

Turning to the scoreboard on gender parity, Brown argues that the numbers are actually on the commission’s side. She wants people to take in the big picture: if you count the journalists who have been involved in all the general election debates since 1988—including those who served on panels of questioners and those who moderated vice-presidential debates—then “nine are women and twelve are men,” Brown explains.

It is certainly true that women journalists have been involved in this process. In the 2008 vice presidential debate, for example, 70 million people watched a female candidate face questions from a female moderator. (PBS’s Gwen Ifill, who moderated that debate, declined to comment for this article.)

Still, any attempt at an aggregate defense here ultimately misses the point. You don’t advance gender parity by asking women to focus on supporting roles, whether on group panels or limited to the vice-presidential debate, while never finding a woman reporter worthy to take charge in the three big face-offs between the men who would be president. But maybe this year will be different.

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This article has been updated.

Chart: GOP Votes on Healthcare Versus Jobs Legislation

House Republicans are set to vote down President Obama’s healthcare law for the thirty-third time, although it is the first repeal vote since the Supreme Court upheld most of the law as constitutional.

The GOP’s constant reiteration of its opposition to the president’s largest domestic achievement has reduced legislating to message discipline—and the political class continues to debate the wisdom of this strategy.

But whether or not this is “smart political theater,” the Republicans’ eagerness to clog Congress with symbolic votes is a sharp contrast to all the jobs legislation that they have bottled up. Remember when President Obama pushed hard for a massive jobs and stimulus plan, the American Jobs Act, which would inject over $400 billion into the economy? The program was even “tilted heavily toward the Republican prescription of tax cuts,” as Bloomberg reported, in order to draw support.  The president went all out for the plan in an address to a joint session of Congress. A majority even backed the Jobs Act in the Senate, but Republicans filibustered, and in the House, they never even scheduled a floor vote for the bill:

In fact, as the above chart explains, Republicans sent Obama’s jobs proposals to eleven different committees but never bothered to vote on it. The bill’s history on the Library of Congress website reads like a sad series of hand-me-downs.

Other jobs bills, like Representative Rosa DeLauro’s Layoff Prevention Act, which would simply tweak the tax code so that employers had more flexibility to cut workers’ hours instead of terminating them—and only within selected “short-time compensation programs”—have never gotten a committee vote. Nevermind the floor debate. These are the kind of jobs measures that Congress should be debating, not the optics of deliberate redundancy.

But still, asking whether Republicans look good by attacking healthcare again is the wrong question. By stoking another healthcare debate, even for a failed vote after a court loss, they are distracting people from the relentless GOP obstruction on economic recovery. And if there’s no jobs plan, of course, it’s easier for their nominee to keep asking where the jobs are.

POLL: Half of Americans Don't Know How Court Ruled on Healthcare

Almost half the country still has no idea what the Supreme Court did in last week's healthcare ruling—one of the most important cases in the last decade, if not since the New Deal.

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center asked people point-blank what the Court did, and 30 percent of people said they didn’t know, while another 15 percent incorrectly said the law was overturned. That rounds out to about 45 percent at “no clue,” when you think about it:

This data is an antidote to all the political and media commentary, across the spectrum, about the inevitably huge impact the decision will have on public opinion and the November election.

There is a dose of partisanship in the findings. Democrats were more likely to correctly answer that the law was upheld—only 11 percent thought it was rejected—while more Republicans incorrectly held onto the belief that it was rejected (19 percent of Republicans thought the Court overturned the law).

Overall, however, the clear takeaway is that even after the relentless media coverage, political passions and controversial intrigue surrounding the case, much of the population is simply not absorbing facts on the outcome of the case.

Supreme Court Upholds Obama's Healthcare Law

The Supreme Court ruled on President Obama’s healthcare law on Thursday, upholding the individual mandate as a tax in an opinion primarily authored by Chief Justice John Roberts.

In a significant distinction, the Court validated Congress's power to pass the healthcare law under its taxing power—an argument that President Obama had downplayed because taxes are politically unpopular.

“Taxes that seek to influence conduct are nothing new,” the Court noted. Congress's federal taxing power is generally wider and less contested than the commerce power, under Court precedent, so the ruling upholds the core of the healthcare law without pinning the opinion to limits on Congress’s commerce power.  (The Court did hold that the mandate would violate the Commerce Clause, but that did not resolve the case, since a majority of the Court upheld the mandate under the alternative taxing power.)

"The Government asks us to read the mandate not as ordering individuals to buy insurance," the Court explained, "but rather as imposing a tax on those who do not buy that product" (emphasis added). That distinction matters to the Constitution, the Court stressed, because Congress may reward people through taxes for actions that it might otherwise not be able to compel.  According to Justice Roberts' opinion, the government does not endanger liberty as much when it makes policy through the tax code:

Although the breadth of Congress’s power to tax is greater than its power to regulate commerce, the taxing power does not give Congress the same degree of control over individual behavior (emphasis added). Once we recognize that Congress may regulate a particular decision under the Commerce Clause, the Federal Government can bring its full weight to bear. Congress may simply command individuals to do as it directs. An individual who disobeys may be subjected to criminal sanctions. Those sanctions can include not only fines and imprisonment, but all the attendant consequences of being branded a criminal: deprivation of otherwise protected civil rights, such as the right to bear arms or vote in elections; loss of employment opportunities; social stigma; and severe disabilities in other controversies, such as custody or immigration disputes.

While this ruling is huge political news, validating the largest domestic achievement of President Obama’s presidency, it does not significantly alter Supreme Court precedent or the powers reserved for the Congress.  For all the political attacks on the Affordable Health Care Act, a year ago, few legal scholars took the constitutional challenge seriously. Today’s opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, essentially endorses the current status quo, which enables Congress to use its taxing power to shape national policy and to incentivize certain behavior. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Court’s alternative approach to the law—which would have struck down the mandate under the Commerce Power—will be used later to limit Congress’s national power or curb progressive legislation.

The opinion is available here and The Nation is streaming live video coverage here. Lyle Denniston, an attorney who writes for SCOTUSblog, also provides this guide to reading the opinion.

This post has been updated.

The Key Passage From the Healthcare Ruling

If you read one part of the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding President Obama’s healthcare law, make it this breakdown of the Constitution’s boundaries for Congress’s power. This is the heart of the case:

Although the breadth of Congress’s power to tax is greater than its power to regulate commerce, the taxing power does not give Congress the same degree of control over individual behavior. Once we recognize that Congress may regulate a particular decision under the Commerce Clause, the Federal Government can bring its full weight to bear. Congress may simply command individuals to do as it directs. An individual who disobeys may be subjected to criminal sanctions. Those sanctions can include not only fines and imprisonment, but all the attendant consequences of being branded a criminal: deprivation of otherwise protected civil rights, such as the right to bear arms or vote in elections; loss of employment opportunities; social stigma; and severe disabilities in other controversies, such as custody or immigration disputes.

By contrast, Congress’s authority under the taxing power is limited to requiring an individual to pay money into the Federal Treasury, no more. If a tax is properly paid, the Government has no power to compel or punish individuals subject to it. We do not make light of the severe burden that taxation—especially taxation motivated by a regulatory purpose—can impose. But imposition of a tax nonetheless leaves an individual with a lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice.

The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax. Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.

In politics, taxes matter because they are so unpopular. For the Supreme Court, however, the taxing power is crucial here because it enables Congress to advance a national policy without endangering liberty. You may have to pay for your healthcare decisions—that was true before this law passed—but you will not be punished, sanctioned, deprived or jailed for them.

The Key Passage from the Health Care Ruling

If you read one part of the Supreme Court's ruling upholding President Obama's health care law, make it this breakdown of the Constitution's boundaries for Congress's power. This is the heart of the case:

Although the breadth of Congress’s power to tax is greater than its power to regulate commerce, the taxing power does not give Congress the same degree of control over individual behavior (emphasis added). Once we recognize that Congress may regulate a particular decision under the Commerce Clause, the Federal Government can bring its full weight to bear. Congress may simply command individuals to do as it directs. An individual who disobeys may be subjected to criminal sanctions. Those sanctions can include not only fines and imprisonment, but all the attendant consequences of being branded a criminal: deprivation of otherwise protected civil rights, such as the right to bear arms or vote in elections; loss of employment opportunities; social stigma; and severe disabilities in other controversies, such as custody or immigration disputes.

By contrast, Congress’s authority under the taxing power is limited to requiring an individual to pay money into the Federal Treasury, no more. If a tax is properly paid, the Government has no power to compel or punish individuals subject to it. We do not make light of the severe burden that taxation—especially taxation motivated by a regulatory purpose—can impose. But imposition of a tax nonetheless leaves an individual with a lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice.

The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax. Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.

In politics, taxes matter because they are so unpopular. For the Supreme Court, however, the taxing power is crucial here because it enables Congress to advance a national policy without endangering liberty. You may have to pay for your health care decisions -- that was true before this law passed -- but you will not be punished, sanctioned, deprived or jailed for them.

Breaking With Democrats, Some Activists Target Obama's Kill List

President Obama’s use of drones to target alleged terrorists on a government “kill list” has attracted some new scrutiny after a major New York Times report, though politicians in both parties have spoken out more against the leaks in the article than the program itself. While some Democratic leaders and progressive groups have been fairly muted on the issue, one Washington group, Just Foreign Policy, has stepped into the vacuum to organize against the drone program.

Robert Naiman, the group’s policy director and president of the board of Truthout, says that Just Foreign Policy is the only organization that has mobilized its members on behalf of drone critics in Congress, including a recent letter from Congressmen Conyers and Kucinich questioning the program. In this new interview, he talks about the challenges of organizing around human rights in the Obama era, and the tangible actions that activists can take to build support within and beyond Congress.

First, what is wrong with the drone program?

People are being killed outside of any traditional battlefield with no oversight, no accountability, no official counting and little public debate or Congressional oversight. The targets include civilians and people who have no dispute with the United States.

Do you think that there is less outrage among Democrats and liberals about Obama’s expansive use of executive power than similar policies under Bush?

I think that this dynamic certainly exists and is obvious, but I also think it is often significantly overstated. It tends to compare an underestimation of what is happening now to an over-glamorization of what things were like during the Bush administration. There was not a constant sea of outrage over the depredations of the Bush administration—but rather spikes of outrage over things at particular times.

We could come up with a long list of Bush depredations that did not provoke a sea of outrage. Was there a sea of outrage over anything that happened in Afghanistan before January 20, 2009? Was there a sea of outrage over the Bush administration’s support for the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon? Lack of outrage over the depredations of US foreign policy is the norm, not the exception.

I would also like “sea of outrage” to be the norm. But it isn’t. There are a lot of people who care a lot about these issues, but we need more people to care more, and we also need constructive things for them to do. If the situation looks futile, people move on to other things; that’s happened under Obama, but it also happened under Bush.

Polls have suggested that the drone strikes are broadly popular, even among liberals. The Washington Post reported in February that “83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy”—including “77 percent of liberal Democrats.”

MoveOn—to take an example from your article—doesn’t try to organize against things that are broadly popular, regardless of who is president. It’s just not what they do. They take actions that they think their members are going to respond to, and that’s not where their base is right now. It’s also true that MoveOn is not likely to enthusiastically seek out opportunities to go after a Democratic president, especially when the campaign is underway, but if your issue isn’t popular among liberals, that question is moot. If we want groups like MoveOn to take action on issues like this, someone else has to do the work of moving their base.

A first step towards that is establishing a toehold in the political system; that’s why we helped initiate the letter of the twenty-six members of Congress on the drone strike policy.

And why is there so much support for the drone program?

A key reason that the drone strikes are popular is that most Americans do not actually know what is going on. For most Americans, if you are killing a top Al Qaeda leader who is actively preparing to attack Americans, that is one thing. If you are killing civilians and people who have no dispute with the United States, that is something else. The press has trumpeted the killings of Al Qaeda leaders, but not the killings of civilians and people who have no dispute with the US—so of course most Americans have the sense that killing dangerous terrorist leaders is what is going on.

We need to work on the press. But one of the reasons the press isn’t reporting more is because the government is holding information so tightly, so that’s why we have to press for more information, and another reason the press isn’t reporting more is because they respond to signals from the political system about what issues are important, and that’s why it’s important to start somewhere in the political system to show some members of Congress care about this. The letter of the twenty-six was widely cited in the press, compared to a lot of other letters signed by twenty-six people.

If there’s nothing constructive to do, there’s going to be less activity. As far as I know, until now there hasn’t been any effort to get members of Congress to sign a paper saying they’re concerned about civilian casualties from the drone strikes. For me, this is the money quote from the letter:

“We are concerned that the use of such ‘signature’ strikes could raise the risk of killing innocent civilians or individuals who may have no relationship to attacks on the United States.”

As far as I know, no one ever asked a group of members of Congress to say that before, and they had not previously done so.

Yet even as human rights groups like CCR and the ACLU are engaged, the political liberal groups with large lists are on the sidelines, right?

I see it differently. The ACLU and CCR are engaged, but as I see it, they have a legal strategy—not a political strategy. They are going after the administration in court around disclosure and legal justification. I think that is worthy and important, obviously, especially if it leads to more disclosures that we can then organize around, but as I see it, they are not trying to move public opinion—or members of Congress—on the drone strike policy.

If you are trying to move public opinion and members of Congress, the “kill list” per se—killing “dangerous terrorist leaders”—is not where you focus. Instead you focus on the killing of people who are not on any “kill list,” and the blowback to the US that comes from killing civilians and people who have no dispute with the US in Pakistan and Yemen.

Who is going to do help us do this? I think the place to look for the next step is the groups that signed the letter in support of the Kucinich-Conyers letter. If these groups did a joint alert, it would reach a lot of people. What’s the next thing that they could do together, and who might join them? What’s the thing that we could get folks to do alerts on? As far as I know, Just Foreign Policy is the only group that did an alert on the Kucinich-Conyers letter.

Peace Action helped us get signers in Congress. But I think a lot of folks are ready to do more if we can figure out a constructive next step. It’s not going to be banning drone strikes—that’s pie in the sky. It’s going to be increased transparency, or compensating civilian victims, or some prohibition or restriction on “signature strikes,” or some increased oversight, or some other reformist move. Rand Paul has called for judicial review, like the FISA court. Some reformist move is going to be the next step, as far as Congress and politics are concerned.

So there’s a leadership vacuum on these issues?

I think a big part of the problem is that this just hasn’t been anybody’s responsibility, no one was in charge of trying to do something reformist on the political side. Glenn Greenwald does what he does, the ACLU does what they do; members of Congress, like Nadler, have pushed for release of the OLC memo. But no one has done a “let’s get the ball moving in Congress” thing on trying to challenge the drone strike policy politically, to my knowledge. That’s why we initiated the letter.

Nothing happens automatically. There’s a small number of people working on peace issues in Washington, and they’re working on a lot of different things. They’re trying to end the war in Afghanistan, they’re trying to prevent war with Iran and promote diplomacy, they’re trying to cut the military budget, particularly the nuclear weapons budget. And since you can’t do everything, if something looks totally futile, people will tend not to work on it, because there’s other stuff to work on that is not totally futile.

So, if you want people to work on something that looks futile, someone has to make a toehold that people can organize around. Initially there was little activity in Washington on the left around the Libya war, not necessarily because everyone was in love with it—but more because it wasn’t obvious if there was anything constructive to do. We worked with Conyers’s office to do an amendment prohibiting ground troops. That passed overwhelmingly.

And we worked on the Kucinich war powers resolution on Libya, which almost passed, and which showed that a lot of people were very angry about the administration’s defying the War Powers Resolution, including a lot of Democrats. If someone comes up with something constructive to do, people will rally around it. Otherwise, nothing happens.

I think the Afghanistan war is a better example to explore the issue about the Obama effect, since that is already broadly unpopular, especially among Democrats. And there has been a fair bit of activity, and MoveOn has helped some, though not as much as they could have, in my opinion. But almost the whole House Democratic Caucus came around to supporting the McGovern-Jones call for a timetable for withdrawal, and MoveOn helped us do that, so it’s not like they did nothing. Of course, it is true now that with the presidential campaign “underway,” the Obama dynamics are quite exacerbated at present.

But is that inevitable, from an organizing perspect? During Vietnam, the presidential race was a vehicle to challenge foreign policy within the party.

No, it is not inevitable. I think it is a great shame that no one of stature was willing to primary Obama from the left including on the war issue. I called for this publicly and worked privately to lobby people I thought might be willing to do it. But you can’t do it without a plausible candidate, and no plausible candidate stepped forward. There are a lot of obstacles to doing this, and one of them is finding a plausible candidate who is willing to do it, and if you can’t do that, it is a moot point.

The Ron Paul campaign was another opportunity to raise foreign policy issues, and some people tried to do that, and there was some buzz around that, and I supported that as best I could and would do so again. But I think the big picture in the long run is that the overwhelming majority of Americans who care about these issues and are willing to do something about them are liberal Democrats who support environmental protection and labor rights and abortion rights and gay rights and Social Security and Medicare, and the Democratic Party is where they live, and that’s not going to change as far as the eye can see; that is the terrain on which we have to operate.

Between now and November, if the candidates are Obama and Romney, there’s not going to be a lot of room in the presidential campaign to raise issues to Obama’s left on foreign policy.

Romney is even worse on most of these issues—on some of them, he is significantly worse. That doesn’t mean that left-liberal critics of US foreign policy have to be quiet; on the contrary, we should keep looking for and creating opportunities to push things our way. It just means that the presidential campaign is not going to be a major vehicle for us to push against administration policy from the left.

Of course, we should take advantage of any opening there is and always tell the truth; if Romney decides to criticize Obama for killing civilians in Yemen, I’ll sign it with both hands. But I’m not holding my breath.

This interview was conducted via e-mail and edited for clarity and length.

Photo of President Obama and former President George W. Bush taken in the White House on May 31, 2012, by Official White House Photographer Chuck Kennedy.

Why Obama's Web Traffic Is Good for Romney

Mitt Romney is not exactly big on the Internet. After months on the trail, he lags far behind Barack Obama as both a candidate and a topic. Obama nets more supporters and dollars through his online campaign, and draws more traffic in news and search—one of the rawest indicators of what Americans are looking for online.

But is that even a good thing?

Buzzfeed, a popular online bulletin board that dived into politics this year, recently touched on the online disparity with, naturally, an eye-catching headline. “Mitt Romney Is Terrible for Traffic,” the site declared, its horror duly noted.

The article surveyed bloggers and web writers who have learned that “no one wants to read about Mitt Romney.” Lots of data back up that claim.

Presidents do make a lot more news than challengers, however, so it could be unfair to credit Obama for his built-in audience. To combat confounding variables, Buzzfeed also conducted “a sort of controlled experiment” comparing the audience for two similar, equally promoted, photo-driven stories about both men.

The Obama piece didn’t just win, its audience was five times bigger.

“The Obama-centric posts vastly outperformed those about Romney,” BuzzFeed reported.  With pictures of Obama “as a young man,” the item may have been popular because of the the prominence of Obama’s “personal narrative,” explained BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins. Just because a piece about Obama is popular, however, does not mean its readers are for Obama.

That was the case with the test post, in fact, and it may reflect a wider trend popping up online.

The post about Obama as a young man, it turns out, drew the majority of its viral views from Obama’s most strident opponents—the websites of two conservative talk radio stars.

About 76 percent of the post’s 46,000 viral views—clicks from referring sites—came via Glenn Beck and Michael Savage. This data was not in the Buzzfeed article about Obama’s traffic edge, but the site’s transparent data dashboard makes the numbers easy to access.

These readers are primarily Obama detractors looking for something to feast on, which is clear from comments about the pictures on Beck’s site. That dynamic was not limited to the test post, either.

Andrew Kaczynski, a BuzzFeed reporter who specializes in searching political archives and who created the photo collection, draws lots of traffic for his Obama coverage. Last week, for example, his most popular pieces were all about the president. The top item catalogued “tall tales” from Obama’s memoir, according to a new book, and its top referrals came from Fox News and a conservative blog. The next item, featuring pictures from Obama’s trip to Africa, also had more viral views from Fox News than any other site. Overall, aside from agnostic social networks like Facebook, the top traffic drivers for Kaczynski’s most popular recent posts were two Fox News sites and a conservative blog. (Andrew Sullivan, a blogger sympathetic to Obama, appears further down the list.)

Now, if that’s the kind of viral traffic driving Obama’s “buzz,” Mitt Romney can certainly do without it.

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For sticklers, there are a few more caveats, of course. In the end, no one expects anything like a direct correlation between the public’s attention, measured online or off, and how people actually vote. Just moving from a single website to broader data, for example, Obama beats Romney in news coverage and Google search volume in blue and red states alike. Romney currently leads the polls in North Carolina, but he has not bested Obama on those metrics once over the past month (as the chart below shows). Meanwhile, in the traditional media, Obama’s greater share of press coverage, compared to Republicans, has resulted in greater scrutiny and more negative stories, according to a recent study from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. And to be sure, Obama still has a valuable edge in tangible campaign operations online, from fundraising with the largest e-mail list of any candidate in history to targeting the release of supporters’ voting locations via text message (a gap that The Nation’s Ben Adler explores here). But for now, all that other traffic is still a mixed blessing.

News and search volume in North Carolina over the past month, according to Google:

Do Liberals Support Obama's Kill List?

President Obama is wielding several security powers that have been historically controversial among Democrats, from indefinitely detaining Guantánamo prisoners to shutting down torture lawsuits as “state secrets” that cannot be addressed in court. There has not been a major Democratic backlash, but all the recent attention on Obama’s “kill list”—a set of targets that has included American citizens as young as 16 years old—seemed like an opening for a new chapter in challenging the administration’s security policies.

For starters, the kill list is just different. Many divisive security measures linked to the Bush administration have been inherently convoluted—Obama’s team had to clean up a mess while developing new policies on the fly. For example, take the Bush-era detainees. Some are difficult to convict in civilian courts because the evidence against them was gathered through torture. Obama supporters understand that the administration’s options are more limited on this score, a predicament Daniel Klaidman stresses in his new chronicle of Obama’s terror policies, Kill or Capture.

The drone program, however, goes far beyond what Bush ever did. It was not required by the past. And it sets a stunning precedent for the future.

Essentially, the program kills people chosen through a secret government process, including Americans and individuals selected merely for being near other targets, with no due process or publicly asserted legal authority.

Yet so far, most elected Democrats, liberal interest groups and progressive commentators have almost entirely avoided the issue. (There are some notable exceptions: the ACLU, Glenn Greenwald, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Jeremy Scahill, Eliot Spitzer, the blog FireDogLake, Democracy Now! and editorials by the New York Times and The Nation.) In the Senate, foreign policy–minded Democrats have focused more on criticizing the leak of the program than its content. In the House, 26 members did write a letter questioning the program. (It was led by Congressmen Kucinich and Conyers, longtime proponents of executive power oversight, and joined by two outlier Republicans, Ron Paul and Walter Jones.) The protests in the House don't have much of an outside game to fortify their effort: Most liberal groups are taking a pass during this election year. To pick one example, MoveOn.org, which is still pushing to close Guantánamo Bay in the Obama era, has not touched the kill list. People who oppose detention without trial, of course, usually oppose execution without trial.

Meanwhile, a few grassroots activists are making some noise. On the official White House website, activists recently used the “We The People” petition portal to tweak the drone program.

“Considering that the government already has a ‘Do Not Call’ list and a ‘No Fly’ list, we hereby request that the White House create a ‘Do Not Kill’ list in which American citizens can sign up to avoid being put on the president’s ‘kill list,’” explains the petition, “and therefore avoid being executed without indictment, judge, jury, trial or due process of law.”

The effort has drawn about 5,000 supporters. But it needs 20,000 more by June 29, in order to qualify for an official response from the White House.

The petition may sound like little more than a wry sideshow, but in the past, this administration’s avenues for online interaction have propelled neglected human rights issues into the conversation. When Obama was first elected, over 75,000 people voted for a question on his transition website asking whether torture allegations would be investigated or prosecuted. The administration initially dodged, even though it was the most popular query, which sparked more interest in the topic. ABC’s George Stephanopoulis cited the popular question in an interview with Obama himself, thrusting a largely taboo issue into the national debate.

At the time, the grassroots interest in torture accountability seemed like it might reflect a new, digitally savvy human rights constituency. Now that Obama is the one testing the same human rights principles, however, the grassroots outrage is harder to find.

Michael Crowley, a reliably measured senior correspondent for Time, sums up the pushback to the kill list as a demonstration of “dismay from some usual suspects on the left, but little outrage overall.” The silence is striking, Crowley writes, because “not only is Barack Obama asserting extraordinary executive power in ways that would have made Bush-era Democrats howl,” but he is “overseeing a very strange transformation” of the presidency into an “executioner-in-chief.” It may be the strangest byproduct of Barack Obama’s high personal appeal—he can legitimize extraordinary new powers without a debate, let alone an outcry.

This article was updated to reflect the addition of the House of Representatives letter questioning the drone program. Mike Darner in Rep. Conyers' office provided the letter to The Nation.

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