Barack Obama has a Mitt Romney problem.
Just as the former governor collapsed in the Republican primaries as a result of his reputation as a flip-flopper, so too may the young U.S. Senator spend the rest of his campaign struggling to explain his evolution on a litany of issues.
While Romney’s candidacy was plagued by liberal positions he was forced to adopt as a Republican who ran two general election contests in Massachusetts, Obama’s problem rises from the opposite set of circumstances.
In all of Obama’s prior campaigns, his main challenge was emerging from a crowded Democratic primary field so he could coast to victory once he secured the nomination. His Illinois state senate district encompassed the South Side of Chicago, where it’s a foregone conclusion that the Democratic nominee will triumph — and when he won the party’s U.S. Senate nod in 2004, Obama fortuitously drew the infeasible Alan Keyes as his opponent.
What this has meant, practically speaking, is that Obama has never had to run a general election campaign against a viable Republican in which his liberal views underwent scrutiny and he was forced to move to the center to compete for independents. This has already caused Obama to undergo a series of policy shifts that warrant close examination.
IN 2003, WHEN Obama was still an obscure state legislator making a long shot bid for the U.S. Senate, he was a proud liberal ideologue. In a lengthy questionnaire filled out that December for the staunch liberal Independent Voters of Illinois—Independent Precinct Organization, Obama vowed that as U.S. Senator, he would be “a champion for the progressive agenda” and boasted that he had “demonstrated the backbone and passion to really fight for progressive causes, even when the political winds are blowing in the other direction.”
On virtually every significant domestic and foreign policy issue he was asked about, Obama adopted the far left position, and he has already reversed several of them during his current campaign.
In the 2003 questionnaire, Obama said he favored normalizing relations with Cuba and opposed continuing the embargo because it, “only makes adversaries of our allies and perpetuates our go-it-alone foreign policy.” Yet last August, he visited Miami and vowed, “As president, I’ll maintain the embargo — it’s an important inducement for change because we know that Castro’s death will not guarantee freedom.”
During the current campaign, Obama has called for increasing the size of the military and taking more aggressive action in Afghanistan. But in the questionnaire, he spoke of increasing diplomacy as a way to “reduce our military budget” and seemed to support pulling troops out of Afghanistan. (After blasting the mounting cost of the occupation of Iraq, he said, “At the same time, we continue to post troops in Afghanistan and even in Kosovo.”)
While in a 1996 questionnaire for the same group Obama wrote that he supported state legislation to “ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns,” by 2003 he realized that “a complete ban on handguns is not politically practicable.” Instead, he told the group he believed in “reasonable restrictions” on their sale and possession. So far in this election, Obama has declined to take a stand on the D.C. gun ban case and has remained vague about his ultimate position on gun rights.
At an AFL-CIO event in 2003, Obama came out firmly in favor of a single-payer health care system, which is academic-speak for a socialized system in which the government is the sole purchaser of medical care.
“I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan,” he said to applause. He added, “As all of you know, we may not get there immediately, because first we’ve got to take back the White House, and we’ve got to take back the Senate, and we’ve got to take back the House.”
During the Democratic nomination battle, Obama insisted that he meant he would support such a system, “if we were starting from scratch.” But clearly, his original statement was made in the present tense and reflected his future aspirations — there was nothing conditional about it.
Though he did have to move toward the center even to make himself a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination, there’s simply no way that he could have pulled off his historic upset of the Clinton machine were it not for his ability to energize liberals by maintaining progressive positions on most issues.
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