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.
NO DOUBT, OBAMA'S 2002 speech against the Iraq War was his most significant asset. But he also took advantage of several openings to make the case that his candidacy represented a break from "conventional Washington thinking" while Hillary Clinton represented a continuation of the failed status quo.
A central part of that sales pitch was his answer in the YouTube debate last July, in which he confidently said he would meet separately, without preconditions, within the first year of his administration, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's face flashed on the screen when Iran was mentioned.)
Obama also assailed Clinton in an op-ed for the New Hamshire Union-Leader for being the only Democratic presidential candidate to vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. In the article, Obama called the amendment "reckless," and said it could be used to justify a continued troop presence in Iraq and exploited as a pretext to attack Iran.
But in an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Obama repositioned himself on both fronts.
When he referred to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, he added, "whose Quds force has rightly been labeled a terrorist organization."
As for negotiating with Iran, his shift was even more dramatic.
"Contrary to the claims of some, I have no interest in sitting down with our adversaries just for the sake of talking," he said. "But as President of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing -- if, and only if -- it can advance the interests of the United States."
But conducting diplomacy based on whether it will advance U.S. interests isn't much of a departure from the current Bush policy, an "appropriate Iranian leader" is much different from meeting with Ahmadinejad, and "a time and place of my choosing" is different from a pledge to do so within the first year of his administration.
OBAMA'S REVERSALS on these issues, as well as the mixed signals he has been giving on taxes, trade, how he actually plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, and a host of other matters, can perhaps be seen in some sense as a positive. After all, if it turns out that Obama is just a typical, opportunistic politician, there's reason to hope that he would govern more pragmatically than his ideologically liberal background, and voting record, would suggest.
On the other hand, given that Obama has such a thin public record, Americans have no way of evaluating him other than on the basis of what he is currently saying. If he is so willing to change his positions and alter his rhetoric on the basis of what is most politically convenient at the time, then voters have no way of assessing how he would actually govern.
In the final debate before the New Hampshire primary, McCain said to Romney, "We disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change."
Come this fall, the line could just as easily be used on Obama.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.
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