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.