Is Obama blowing it?

Is Barack Obama close to being shadowed by giant flip-flops and, worse, having the image stick with people all the way to the voting booth?

Four years ago, Republicans branded as a "flip-flop" even the slightest rhetorical or policy change by John Kerry and sent huge replicas of the casual sandals to bob around the Massachusetts Democrat’s events, feeding an image of him as a wishy-washy panderer.

Fair or not, Kerry never recovered and lost to President Bush.

It’s now the Republican weapon of choice against Obama.

The Illinois senator has excited many with the notion that he is a new, transcendent type of politician. But he is giving the GOP effort ammunition and endangering his "Change We Can Believe In" motto with several shifts to the center, most recently on the Iraq war, his campaign’s defining issue.

General election campaigns invariably find candidates fine-tuning what they said during primaries.

When politicians compete against others in their party, they must appeal to the most partisan, who tend to make up the majority of enthusiastic voters at that stage. But general elections require a broader appeal, particularly to the vast center of the nation’s electorate.

So it’s not uncommon as spring fades and November approaches to see candidates de-emphasize or even cast off some of their most extreme positions in favor of policy more palatable to the middle. They mostly do it quietly, or try to anyway.

And though there can sometimes be criticism about shifting positions, voters usually forgive and forget.

For one thing, a willingness to hone policy, add nuance or even change one’s mind — especially when new information comes to light — is not in itself a bad quality in a leader. For another, those partisans who supported a candidate in the primaries are not likely to switch parties and back the other candidate. Often the worst that can happen is they stay home on Election Day. Politicians are usually willing to risk that for the chance to court the center.

Hence Obama has been highlighting positions anathema to the left on several issues, though some have long been part of his policy.

On Iraq, Obama said Thursday that his upcoming trip there might lead him to refine his promise to quickly remove U.S. troops from the war.

He now supports broader authority for the government’s eavesdropping program and legal immunity for telecommunications companies that participated in it, supporting the bill after some protections were added.

The handgun control proponent reacted to the Supreme Court overturning the District of Columbia’s gun ban by saying he favors both an individual’s right to own a gun as well as government’s right to regulate ownership.

Obama became the first major-party candidate to reject public financing for the general election after earlier promises to accept it.

He not only embraced but promised to expand Bush’s program to give more anti-poverty grants to religious groups, a split with Democratic orthodoxy.

He objected to the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing the death penalty for child rapists, drawing attention to his support for the death penalty if used only for the "most egregious" crimes.

Obama also said "mental distress" should not count as a health exception that would permit a late-term abortion, saying "it has to be a serious physical issue," addressing a matter considered crucial to abortion rights activists.

The GOP increasingly has sought to take advantage of any opportunity to permanently pin the flip-flopper label on Obama, with all its unappealing associations, and strip him of the shiny-new-penny one he’s cultivated up to now.

"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 national Republican Party.

It might be working. Despite disarray in Republican John McCain’s camp, Bush’s dismal approval ratings and just 17 percent of the public saying the nation is moving in the right direction, recent polls show Obama unable to build a solid lead over his GOP rival.

For Obama, there is no more important issue than Iraq.

Unequivocal opposition to the war drove his entrance into the race. It helped him defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination. It made him a darling of the anti-war activists who are now prominent and influential in the Democratic Party.

Those forces won’t like Thursday’s statement-bordering-on-a-promise that "I’ll … continue to refine my policy" on Iraq, particularly after he visits and makes what he said would be a "thorough assessment."

Obama’s problem on Iraq isn’t that he is changing his position drastically, because he isn’t.

Obama has always said his promise to end the war would require consultations with military commanders and, possibly, flexibility. This, in fact, is the only reasonable stance for a U.S. commander in chief to take.

His problem is that his change in emphasis to flexibility from a hard-nosed end-the-war stance — including his recent position that withdrawing combat troops could take as long as 16 months — will now be heard loud and clear by an anti-war camp that may have ignored it before. So he could face a double-whammy in their feelings of betrayal and other voters’ belief in the Republican charge that he is craven.

It was Obama’s messy series of comments Thursday, coming after weeks in which Republicans had been goading him to change his withdrawal policy in light of reduced violence, that put an unfortunate spotlight on his quandary.

After his remark at a news conference about refining policy exploded onto the political scene, he called a do-over four hours later to "try this again." He said the refining wouldn’t be related to his promise to remove combat forces within 16 months of taking office, but to the number of troops needed to train Iraqis and fight al-Qaida. But then he acknowledged that the 16-month timeline could indeed slip if removing troops risked their safety or Iraqi stability.

Still, he said, "I will bring this war to a close. … I am not searching for maneuvering room with respect to that position."

Obama said his overall problem is that he was incorrectly tagged to begin with as being a product solely of his party’s left wing, so that statements displaying a broad ideological range are portrayed as shifts when they are not. "When I simply describe what has been my position consistently, then suddenly people act surprised," he lamented earlier this week.

But his problem may in fact be that he’s not handling the shifts quietly enough — and maybe not forgivably either.


Jennifer Loven has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 1992.


  1. Carl Nemo

    People have no doubt read my concerns about Obama lately. I too have reservations about Obama’s position on the FISA bill and many other issues on which Obama has voiced his opinion. I see him as facilitating the creation of even more byzantine beaurocracy in order to cure the ills created by in place agencies.

    Just like in corporate America, our federal, state and local governments need a massive downsizing! The private sector civilians always suffer while our smug government and agency personnel continue to whistle a tune all the way to the bank. They’ve got COLA adjustments to their pay and pension checks whereas most American workers do not. I suspect we’re going to hear just four more years of jive and shuck talk from Obama if he’s elected!

    Of course the alternative is to have Mad John McCain in the Whitehouse. I’d say America is caught between a rock and a hard place this upcoming election. We can vote third party, but in the end it will still be one of these mainstream shills that makes it to the Whitehouse.

    Every couple of years we “think” we have our say, but in actuality our voting is nothing but our indemnification of the shadowy corporatist controllers’ preselected candidates courtesy of the MSM that they also own. The MSM pushes their preselected shills down our collective throats via the nomination process. We should not forget that Obama is also a CFR member, just like Bill Richardson et al. that were running for the nomination.

    Case in point concerning Obama. The following link reference is the type of nation-destroying legislation in which he is involved. It sounds feelgood on the surface, but could impact our terminally broke nation to the tune of another trillion bucks on socialist pap for the global unwashed masses with most of the money to be stolen and frittered away as usual by the corrupt beaurocracy that manages such programs. Of course he has no interest in defeating this outrageous FISA legislation that’s before the Senate.

    He’s sponsoring a “Global Poverty Act”. Hey what about a “U.S. Poverty Act” to bail “we the people” out of our collective fix. No they want to indebt us even deeper so we can save our enemies in most cases from starvation…no?! X-(

    We the people are evidently doomed…!

    I rest my case.

    Carl Nemo **==

  2. Jim C

    Pablo , while I’m unhappy with Obama , I will cast my vote for him . I had hoped to be able to cast a vote for someone rather than against the republicans , but alas , that doesn’t seem to be the case this year . But make no mistake , I will vote for the democratic candidate . One can only hope that he is a pleasent surprise in office , we shall see .
    Hoosier cowboy , You got my attention with your quote ” the opposite of love is not hate, its indifference ” . I’ve long puzzled over that one . The first time I heard it was from a conservative friend . My friend John , has a degree in economics from the university of Chicago and an engineering degree from Noter Dame . Needless to say he keeps you on your toes in political discussion . I credit him with keeping me from having complete contempt for all conservatives , he is a decent and good guy , just misguided . We belong to the same gym and have spent as much as four hours standing in the workout area discussing politics and doing little else .
    Sandra , I believe rove is a one trick pony . His whole game is deceit and distortion . I’m not so sure his tactics will work again . You can only get so much mileage from lies and smears and thats all he has . Once you drag a foul creature like him into the light his influence is diminished and disipated . The public has seen the result of this present conservative turn , hopefully we have learned a lesson , at least for a while . Historically it takes a few cycles before conservatives can peddle their poison again , but we shall see .

  3. Jim C

    I am not sure where he’s moving is the center . That is unless you believe that restricting reproductive rights , pandering to gun loonies , allowing corporations to break the laws of the land with no consequences , in process violating the constitution , handing over taxpayer monies to religious organizations who pay no taxes , again in violation of the constituition are really centrist positions ? If that is your definition of a centrist then you should be happy as a clam . And guess what , that means that mccain and the whole putrid right wing are centrists too , who’d have known . The right wingers are centrists and liberals are hopelessly out of step , caring about fringe issues like seperation of church and state , gun violence , amendments other than the second , government illegally spying on its citizens and both houses of congress assisting in coverups of illegal activity to cover their leaderships ass’s , did I mention a womans right to have control over her own body ? Also , liberals don’t tend to be ” idealogues ” , they do tend to see and appreciate nuance and can see shades of gray where conservatives like things in black and white .

  4. km0591

    We don’t want another rigid idealogue in office on either the left or the right. Calibration and refinement of positions is a normal process for any sensible politician.

    The problem with Obama’s move to the center and to the right has happened with such a flurry and has been so far reaching since he locked up the nomination. When a candidate who became the nominee proposing fundamental, principled change moves so quickly to the center and the right, people become pretty suspicious. Remember the 2006 election? Democrats promised great changes then also. They gained control of both houses of Congress and subsequently did less than squat. Congress now is less popular than Bush.

    People smell another betrayal in the making. Perhaps Obama is just more skilled at selling the status quo to the electorate than McCain who is frankly less intelligent and just too damn old.

    Still, change you can believe in? Naw, just another sales job for maintaining the way things are with a bunch of happy talk. Obama may be making a critical error on this assuming that people will come out and vote for him just because they don’t like McCain. I’ll be damned if I am going to be conned again by some slick talking Democrat who promises “change” but delivers squat.

    Maybe the only way things will change is if the status quo fails and collapses. McCain is more of a fool so he is the better man to facilitate that. The sooner, the better.

  5. Jim C

    Why does ” pulling out all of the stops ” mean a hard right turn ? The positions the conservatives believe in aren’t popular at all when people understand what they really are . The democrats have allowed the republicans to frame , distort and muddy the debate for far to long . Most every ( actually every , not most every ) popular program was enacted by “”” liberal “”” democrats , not republicans and certainly not conservatives of any stripe .The fact is they fought tooth and nail against every social advance this country has ever made and that includes slavery . Does anyone really believe Lincoln would have had anything in common with the republican party after say , 1875 or so ? Conservatives were and still are against child labor laws , minimum wage , worker safety laws , food safety laws , overtime rules , the 40 hr work week , workers compensation , equal rights , minority rights , voting rights , product safety regulations , social security , medicare , medicade and on and on and on . They still work to repeal or weaken all of the afformentioned every chance they get . Do you think they could really run a successful campaign on what they really stand for ? OK , so what do they have , fundamentalist , right wing religion , guns , anti choice , anti regulation ( for corporations ) certainly not for you and I , anti gay , anti womens rights , anti minority rights . In other words anti pretty much everything this countrys middle class has fought for since the early twenteth century . Good luck with that platform if the public understands what it really is . What really drives me to distraction is when conservatives pretend they are promoters of patriotism and democracy . How is it they can use that mantle when the founding fathers were pretty much all liberals , the declaration of independence is a very liberal document promoting liberal ideals , not conservative ones . The conservatives were on the side of king George during the revolution , fought and disparaged the founding fathers during the revolution and for the most part left the colonies after the revolution . Check out the history , it’s all there . Hearing this garbage that this is a conservative country makes me want to puke . Though it does seem sometimes that king George may yet prevail and his present day followers just may trick us back into the servitude we once fought to cast off .

  6. Hoosier_CowBoy

    There’s a line one crosses between spin and outright mendacity.

    During a jury trial, a good lawyer tries to get an opposing witness to lie on the stand before the important questions of the case get asked.

    If the lawyer can get the witness to lie about one obvious fact, that witnesses’ testimony is in legal terms “impeached”, although it might not be serious enough to prosecute as perjury, its enough to get the jury to ask one question: “if this witness lied about a small detail, is he’s going to lie about a big thing?”

    This bunch of NeoCons have already been proven in the court of public opinion to have impeached testimony, nothing else they can say makes any difference except to upgrade their performance as liars.

    This crap needs to be given the attention it deserves, none, zero, nada, put into the circular file. The Republican Noise Machine merely generates entropy.

    No one is paying attention any more Mr. Rove.

    Its been said that the opposite of love is not hate, its indifference, Mr. Rove, that’s the public response to your inarticulate clatter.

    We are indifferent, numb, deaf, in one ear and out the other. If you had a message we’re sending it back like a plate of rotten sushi.