The problem with a people-powered movement is that eventually the people want a say. John Rosinski, an engineer in Orlando, Fla., always believed in the you-centered philosophy of Barack Obama's campaign. So he and more than 22,000 other supporters who banded together on Obama's website were furious when the Illinois Senator, despite their petition, voted July 9 for a bill that would allow the Bush Administration to continue its program of wiretapping without warrants, a measure Obama once swore he would filibuster. To Rosinski, that's apostasy. "I really don't know right now if I'll vote for him," Rosinski says. "He is just continuing politics as usual, becoming like any other politician."
In his transition from upstart candidate to presumptive nominee, Obama has, to some of his once ardent fans, come to look dangerously like the ingratiating Washington politicians he so often rails against. Worried about his patriotism? He now wears a flag pin daily. Uneasy about his church? He left it. Too liberal? Just look at his recent policy statements endorsing gun rights, calling for trade talks and supporting restrictions on late-term abortion.
Such tactical shifts to the center are a general-election ritual for Democratic presidential candidates, a pre-emptive defense against the Republican attack machine. But Obama isn't like other candidates. In his 2006 best seller, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote of himself, "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." So as his pragmatic side fills that screen, those loyal foot soldiers who got used to seeing their own reflections are beginning to cry betrayal. The people in Obama's movement feel they have an open line directly to him, and these days many want their objections heeded. "It's a wake-up call on how much wiggle room he has," says presidential scholar Stephen Hess.
The rumblings of liberal discontent began last month, after Obama came out in favor of the Supreme Court's decision striking down Washington's handgun ban. That was followed by a press conference in which he appeared to backtrack on his commitment to a speedy withdrawal from Iraq and by a speech to an Ohio ministry in which he pledged to expand George W. Bush's faith-based-initiative program. In an interview with FORTUNE, he said his critique of free trade during the primaries was "overheated and amplified." By the time Obama voted for the wiretapping bill, Rosinski and his fellow rebels had become the largest group on the Senator's website.
Being accused of flip-flopping by the Republicans is routine; infuriating the faithful is risky business. Obama denies that he's sacrificing principle to appeal to moderates. "Don't assume that if I don't agree with you on something that it must be because I'm doing that politically," he told an audience in Powder Springs, Ga., on July 8. "I may just disagree with you." It's true that some of Obama's "shifts" have been more about a change in emphasis than in policy. On Iraq, for example, Obama has long said, "We have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in." The difference now is that he's emphasizing careful as much as getting out.
And yet the Obama camp knows it can't ignore the liberal outcry. That's why Obama posted his own response to critics of his wiretapping stand and the campaign set up a forum with three policy advisers to field questions about it. That has helped soothe some on the left. "We may disagree with him on an issue, [but] he is not going to shut down discussion, and he is not going to hide like George W. Bush," says Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the liberal blog Daily Kos. Obama is counting on disappointed liberals to be as pragmatic as they are passionate. They may no longer like everything they see when they look at him. But they'll vote for him anyway.