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Obama vs. Bloggers: The Battle Over Who Gets to Name a Thing

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, October 1 2010

FireDogLake's Jane Hamsher jumps into the debate over just what a questioning blogger class means for the Obama presidency. Hamsher suggests that one thing emanating from the online commentariat is a definition what's relevant, what's worth debating, and what constitutes success -- something past American presidents, the thinking goes, had an easier time shaping in the days before the Internet:

In the past, presidents have been able to say they were doing one thing while doing another, and then hiding the details in an opaque process that the media neither understood nor cared to report. Liberal bloggers now used new media to explain those details and communicate them directly to people who care about a particular issue. Look at the comments section of any major media outlet's website. You'll see people talking about the "catfood commission," "Dan Choi," "Obama's assassination program" or his "PhRMA deal" or the fact that he "sold out" the public option. That didn't start on Meet the Press.

Hamsher offers a prime example: how the online left helped to grow -- from nowhere, really -- the "public option" into the gold standard during the health care battles of the early Obama presidency:

We boxed Obama in, quite consciously, and did it in a way that would not have been possible before the internet. It made it almost impossible for him to successfully claim a progressive "victory" on health care, the signature piece of legislation of his presidency. And it bothers him no end -- which is why he keeps mentioning it every time he engages in hippie punching.

Of course, that's the criticism that folks lob at Hamsher and some other bloggers: that their framing of the debate around the notion of a public option made it "almost impossible for [Obama] to successfully claim a progressive 'victory' on health care," which some progressives might argue is a bad thing. Either way, there's power in naming a thing, which is why the web-savvy Hamsher subtly links that phrase "hippie punching" to an FDL post defining the concept. Now it's a thing. Google turns up nearly 60,000 references, and the Google trend line for the phrase looks like a rocket taking off. It's an idea out there in the ecosystem, something for Obama to confront.

That power to define the debate, whether it's "public option" or "hippie punching," is something that Obama probably thought he had harnessed a fair share of when he racked up all those electoral college votes. But that's not the world that Obama looks out upon when he looks out of the window of the White House, and that's probably tremendously frustrating.

If Obama suspected that, in the United State's two-party system, liberal bloggers would have nowhere to go post-election than into his tent and that of the Democratic party, liberal bloggers seem to have had other ideas. Riding a tiger is one thing, but trying to herd cats who have other options is another. Exploring those options is something that's happening right now; in that vein, FireDogLake has teamed up with Students for a Sensible Drug Policy to organize virtual phonebanking in favor of pro-marijuana legalization ballot initiatives going before the voters in Arizona, California, Oregon and South Dakota. "Just Say Now" -- now that's catchy.