Is Obama’s determination making or breaking him ?

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Brendhan from Florida is not happy with Barack Obama. “What the heck is going on?” he asks the senator in a blog entry on the official web portal of the Democratic presidential campaign. “I keep having to endure one disappointment after another . . . When are you going to stand up and [show] some spine again?”

By Andrew Ward

A month after Mr Obama sealed the Democratic nomination, his army of online supporters is showing signs of division. Bloggers have inundated the portal – – with protests about his shift to the centre.

Within days of its creation last month, a group appealing for Mr Obama to reconsider his support for a compromise deal over controversial domestic surveillance legislation had become the most popular community on his website.

The rebellion highlights the balancing act facing Mr Obama as he attempts to win over conservative-minded Democrats and independents without alienating the grassroots liberals whose enthusiasm helped propel him to the nomination.

Mr Obama has taken decisive steps to the centre on several contentious issues over the past fortnight, indicating that he is prepared to test his supporters’ loyalty to the limit.

On Thursday, he signalled willingness to “refine” his plans for withdrawal of US forces from Iraq after consulting commanders when he visits the country later this summer.

Mr Obama insisted he was not backtracking from his commitment to remove all combat troops within 16 months of taking office but said there was room for flexibility in the number of troops left behind for training and anti-terrorism operations. “We need to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in,” he told reporters during a campaign stop in North Dakota. “I would always reserve the right to do what’s best.”

His manoeuvring on Iraq reflects pressure on Mr Obama to acknowledge progress made towards stabilising the country and defuse Republican attempts to define his strategy as “surrender”. His support for a Senate compromise over the Bush administration’s domestic eavesdropping programme was another sign of his determination to avoid the perception of weakness on national security that has sunk Democratic candidates in the past.

More broadly, he has sought to tackle doubts about his values and patriotism with a series of policy shifts designed to align him with “middle America”. He raised liberal eyebrows last week by voicing opposition to a Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the death penalty for child rapists before signalling tacit support a day later for the court’s decision to affirm the right of individuals to own guns. This week, he pledged to expand the role of religious groups in tackling social problems and moderated his liberal stance on abortion by saying “mental distress” should not qualify as a reason to terminate a late-term pregnancy.

Mr Obama has also diluted the protectionist rhetoric he delivered on free trade, drawing back from a threat to renegotiate unilaterally the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

His first television advertisement of the campaign cast him as a champion of family values, patriotism and lower taxes. It stressed “love of country” and “working hard without making excuses”.

Persuading white and Hispanic Americans that he shares their values is perhaps the single biggest challenge of Mr Obama’s campaign, in the face of Republican attempts to portray him as a radical liberal. The task is made all the more difficult given that his opponent, John McCain, is a Vietnam war hero who spent 5½ years in a prison camp.

As a moderate Republican, Mr McCain is also aiming to compete aggressively for independent voters and the white, working-class Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries. A recent AP-Yahoo News poll found that 15 per cent of voters considered themselves moderates without a clear choice of candidate.

Tacking to the centre in search of these votes is hardly a new strategy for US presidential candidates after winning the primaries with a more radical agenda.

But it carries risks for Mr Obama because his brand rests on his promise to deliver a new kind of politics. If he begins to look like just another flip-flopping politician – as the Republicans are portraying him – he could lose the grassroots energy that has powered his campaign.

“There appears to be no issue that Barack Obama is not willing to reverse himself on for the sake of political expedience,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

Mr Obama spent Independence Day yesterday in Montana – a state President George W. Bush won by 21 points in 2004 – highlighting his determination to compete in Republican strongholds. A poll this week showed him leading in the Rocky Mountain state – the latest in a series of state and national surveys that suggest his centrist strategy is working. “I believe the American people across ideological spectrum . . . are hungry for something new,” he told reporters.

The Financial Times

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