Manipulating and measuring the political spectrum part 1: Obama and the flip flops

By Nick Li

flip flops.jpg The conventional political wisdom in the last few weeks is that Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama has been moving to the center to win the votes of moderates. In doing this he is just following the time honored tradition of running towards the political extremes during the primary contests and then moving back to the center in time for the general election. Purveyors of this narrative include McClatchy,Time Magazine, the Chicago Tribune,the Hill, the Huffington Post,and Among the issues at stake are retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies, recent supreme court decisions to overturn the Washington D.C. handgun ban and disallow the death penalty for child rape cases, unilateral withdrawal from NAFTA, whether Jerusalem must remain united and under Israeli control, the rate of troop withdrawal from Iraq, tax policy and support for "faith-based initiatives" (i.e. church-based social service provision). I find all the talk about moving to the center surprising because I never thought that Barack Obama was a political radical far to the left of the American mainstream or even the Democratic party. Part of the problem is that a major talking point of the right-wing, often repeated in the echo chamber of the US mainstream media, is that Obama is too liberal for mainstream America, and is in fact "the most liberal senator in the US." This is a devastating charge in a country where "liberal" is seen as a dirty word by many, and where self-identified conservatives still outnumber liberals. It seems like many Americans are buying into this rhetoric without more carefully scrutinizing Senator Obama’s own voting record. They have perhaps been misled by Obama’s associations with more radical leftist figures like his former Reverend, Jeremiah Wright, or neighbor, former Weather underground terrorist Bill Ayers. In this post I want to briefly provide my own analysis of whether Obama has in fact moved to the center on various issues. In my next post I will look in greater detail at how one can actually measure the political spectrum – what is the center in US politics and how are these things measured by the likes of the National Journal, which did rank Obama as the most liberal Senator in 2007. On Iraq: This would be the most damning flip-flop, if only it were true. Karl Rove and others have dug up quotes like this one, all the way back from a 2004 AP article :

America cannot afford to withdraw immediately, said Obama, an early opponent of invading Iraq. That would create more chaos in Iraq and make it "an extraordinary hotbed of terrorist activity," he said at a meeting of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association. It would also damage America’s international prestige and amount to "a slap in the face" to the troops fighting there, he said. Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama said Saturday he would be willing to send more soldiers to Iraq if it is part of a strategy that the president and military leaders believe will stabilize the country and eventually allow America to withdraw. "If that strategy made sense and would lead ultimately to the pullout of U.S. troops but in the short term required additional troop strength to protect those who are already on the ground, then that’s something I would support," he said.

Of course, what this quote proves is that Barack Obama has always had a nuanced position on withdrawal form Iraq (a quote which Fox news seems to have conveniently lost now that they are charging him with formerly having a hard position and only now going "soft"). He seems to favor a loose timetable – 16 months currently – combined with input from his military advisers and the "situation on the ground." His current position – qualifying any 16 month timetable with an escape clause, but insisting his intention is to stick to the timetable which is attainable as far he knows – is the same as it has always been. Anyone who watched any of the televised debates has heard a few quotes a million times by now:

We need to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in

Defending himself from the charge of flip-flopping, Obama said that his 16-month timeline "was always premised on" not endangering either U.S. troops or Iraq’s stability, which he had previously been told by commanders was possible. "I’m going to continue to gather information to see whether those conditions still hold," he said. "My goal is to end this conflict as soon as possible." "I continue to believe that it is a strategic error for us to maintain a long-term occupation in Iraq at a time when conditions in Afghanistan are worsening, al-Qaida is continuing to establish bases in areas of northwest Pakistan, resources there are severely strained and we are spending $10 to $12 billion a month in Iraq that we desperately need here at home, not to mention the strains on our military," Obama said. The idea that Obama somehow did not stand for this level of nuance – that he would order troop withdrawals without consulting any generals, and with no regard for loss of US life or Iraqi life, whether or not Iran staged a coup, regardless of any possible contingency – is of course ridiculous. At this stage, there are a few major differences between Obama and McCain on Iraq. These boil down to the beginning and the end game:

Whether to wage the war in the first place

Lest this seem merely academic, I stress that given everything that we know today, McCain still said this when accepting the Republican nomination a few months ago:

I will defend the decision to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime as I criticized the failed tactics that were employed for too long to establish the conditions that will allow us to leave that country with our country’s interests secure and our honor intact.

In other words, he would do it again knowing everything that he knows now. This is important, because many people who supported the war initially, including Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, have admitted that knowing what they know now they would not authorize the war.

The rate of troop withdrawal and status of forces agreement

Obama has never wavered in his commitment to withdraw troops, though his stated pace of troop withdrawal is more nuanced. But the main difference between the two men is their view of the long-term strategy. While McCain complains that his statement about "100 years" in Iraq was taken out of context, the true context for the statement is that Iraq can and will be like West Germany or South Korea, with permanent US military bases (but somehow no more casualties). Obama has called for regional diplomacy, including Iran and Syria, and made it clear that he opposes permanent US military bases and a permanent US troop presence. His openness to a time-table for withdrawal and his opposition to a permanent military presence puts him squarely on the side of Iraq’s government, at least according to recent public statements. The beginning game and the end game are intimately connected of course. Those that would still have invaded Iraq knowing everything they know today, despite the failure to find WMD or terrorist connections, would do so because to them the ultimate goal was always to make Iraq into a nation friendly to US geopolitical interests, whether that meant control of Iraq’s large oil reserves, setting up permanent military bases in Iraq to project US power into the region, or creating a model liberal democracy for Arab states. Achieving any of this goals requires a permanent US presence to ensure that a genuinely independent nationalist and/or pro-Iran government does not arise to threaten US oil interests (perhaps by joining OPEC and restricting supplies, or making special deals with China), hamper US military operations (by preventing US use of airspace, forcing the US to rely heavily on Saudi Arabia and other nations for military operations), and generally foil plans for US hegemony in the region. 

On Iran and diplomacy

This one is trickier to defend because Obama initially talked about face to face negotiations without preconditions with leaders of Iran, though he never mentioned Ahmadinejad by name. He since qualified his position to face to face negotiations provided there is a show of good faith from the other regime, some preparatory diplomatic groundwork, and hence a positive agenda for negotiation. Of course, anyone with a nuanced understanding of international affairs knew that these things were going to happen anyway – Obama was not simply going to call Ahmadinejad on the phone to let him know that the following day he will be dropping by for tea and to find out what is on his mind. But this point appears to be lost on many who considered his statement as a bold (and possibly naive) new approach to US foreign policy. Obama was clearly trying to communicate his intentions to take diplomacy much more seriously and personally than President Bush. His belief that a refusal to personally negotiate with foreign leaders projects an image that the US is aloof and above all other nations in foreign affairs is a significant departure from Bush. However, he should have responded more quickly to the absurd idea that the US president would simply entertain visiting dictators at the White House at their pleasure or deliver US Presidential prestige to them 24 hours a day like a diplomatic pizza delivery service. The statement Obama made before AIPAC is harder to defend – without the nuance and clarification that Obama gave to his statement later, the idea that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided" is such a huge departure from US foreign policy over the last few decades that it is hard to see it as anything other than a gaffe and/or a blatant attempt to pander to the hawks of AIPAC. Obama later clarified his statement through a campaign adviser:

But a campaign adviser clarified Thursday that Obama believes "Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties" as part of "an agreement that they both can live with." "Two principles should apply to any outcome," which the adviser gave as: "Jerusalem remains Israel’s capital and it’s not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967." He refused, however, to rule out other configurations, such as the city also serving as the capital of a Palestinian state or Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods. "Beyond those principles, all other aspects are for the two parties to agree at final status negotiations," the Obama adviser said.

It is unclear whether this statement by Obama represents a pander, a gaffe, or a statement consistent with his policy that merely lacked the required clarification and nuance, but it is incredibly hard to believe that it represented a genuine radical change in the US position on Jerusalem and final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. To call it a flip-flop would be to ascribe a position to Obama that he (nor any other President, including George W. Bush) never held – after all, there is no other context for this statement. There are no other statements at any point of Obama’s career to the effect that he supports Jerusalem remaining forever undivided under exclusive Israeli control regardless of any political negotiations.

On the economy

In a recent interview Obama stated that his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy (by effectively reversing the Bush income tax cuts of 2001, and possibly also raising payroll taxes and capital gains taxes) may be contingent on the state of the economy – he would not raise taxes if he felt that it would harm prospects for recovery from a recession. This has led some to accusations of another flip flop. However, Obama has clearly stated, on numerous occasions and with no nuance, that he wants to soak the rich with taxes. Like any good Keynesian, he acknowledges the fact that raising taxes during a recession is not good fiscal policy. He has clearly internalized the orthodoxy of liberal economists. He supports short term fiscal stimulus, even with the US running huge deficits, during (and preferably before or early into) a recession, and believes such stimulus should be directed at those most likely to spend it, the poor and middle class. He opposes long-term growth by supply-side tax cuts for the wealthy, which have a questionable track record of boosting economic growth and an even more questionable track record of increasing government revenues. In expressing this view Obama is just maintaining the modicum of flexibility that any economic policy maker has to have to be effective – the question for Obama is not whether taxes will increase on the rich, but when. This is pretty weak stuff for accusations of a flip-flop. The NAFTA charges are more serious, but since I can’t believe that any serious person ever believed that the US would unilaterally pull out of NAFTA under anything less than a Kucinich administration I am forced to classify Obama’s statements to that effect during the primary as unabashed pandering to ill-informed voters. It is instructive that the American media did not discuss statements to that effect at all until Obama’s advisor Austan Goolsbee admitted in private conversations to Canadian officials that it was pandering – if they had actually taken it seriously and at face value it would certainly have been a bigger story, as it would represent an unprecedented and radical break from current US trade policy with major implications for relations with America’s two neighbors. Obama remains one of the more protectionist senators in the US based on his votes on actual free trade agreements put before congress, and I give him a pass on the "flip-flop" charge since I can’t believe he ever actually held that position. He may want to add more labor and environmental provisions to NAFTA – being an inevitable compromise between business and labor interests in all three countries, every leader of Canada, Mexico and the US has had some objection to specific NAFTA provisions since its inception – but I can’t believe he or any US president would threaten to unilaterally cancel it to increase US leverage in re-negotiating these provisions.

On Supreme court cases

Two recent supreme court cases found Obama giving nuanced answers that did not clearly side with the prevailing liberal positions. In District of Columbia versus Heller , a 5-4 decision that struck down Washington D.C.’s ban on handgun ownership as well as its law requiring that rifles and shotguns be kept disassembled or with trigger locks, Obama supported the decision of the court to uphold the second amendment while still recognizing that some regulation of firearm ownership is allowed. In Kennedy versus Louisiana, a 5-4 decision that ruled against the imposition of the death penalty for child rape on the grounds that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment (discussed in detail by Tobias on this blog), Obama objected to the ruling:

I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, then that does not violate our Constitution. On the capital punishment issue, I was surprised to learn that Obama has always supported capital punishment for some crimes and has always been a moderate on this issue. He received 75% rating from the National Criminal Justice Association, which puts him between the "soft-on-crime" and the "tough-on-crime" legislators. I had heard about Obama’s activism against the death penalty on several issues. He opposed making gang activity eligible for the death penalty – "There’s a strong overlap between gang affiliation and young men of color…. I think it’s problematic for them to be singled out as more likely to receive the death penalty for carrying out certain acts than are others who do the same thing." He also supported the videotaping of all capital punishment interrogations and the moratorium on the Death Penalty in the state of Illinois imposed by Governor Ryan in 1999 (which followed evidence exonerating over a dozen death row inmates). However, look at what he said on the issue in a 2004 debate:

I think that the death penalty is appropriate in certain circumstances. There are especially heinous crimes: terrorism, the harm of children. Obviously, we’ve had some problems in this state in the application of the death penalty. That’s why a moratorium was put in place and that’s why I was so proud to be one of the leaders in overhauling a death penalty system that was broken. We became the first in the nation requiring the video taping of capital interrogations and confessions. We have to have this ultimate sanction in certain circumstances where the whole community says "this is beyond the pale."

Thus it was abundantly clear, 4 years ago, that Obama would probably object to the Supreme Court’s decision that the death penalty cannot be applied to child rape cases. Obama’s position appears to be one that supports the Death Penalty but only with an extremely high level of safeguards and overwhelming evidence. This is certainly at odds with many on the American left, but he has been consistent on the issue. On gun control Obama has moved more towards the center since his run for the Presidency, though obviously not enough to earn the endorsement of the National Rifle Association which is planning to run millions of dollars of ads against Obama. He supported efforts to regulate and limit firearm ownership in the Illinois legislature, he supported Bill Clinton’s federal ban on assault weapons, and remained somewhat ambiguous but apparently in favor of the DC handgun ban. He also made a now infamous statement about people in small towns "clinging to their guns" as a distraction from economic hard times. However, on a few occasions he made statements or took positions that were more pro-gun. Although he generally opposes concealed carry laws he supported an exemption for retired police officers, and has given nuanced answers earlier this year that lean towards gun control but also respect for the second amendment:

Q: When you were in the state senate, you talked about licensing and registering gun owners. Would you do that as president? A: I don’t think that we can get that done. But what we can do is to provide just some common-sense enforcement. The efforts by law enforcement to obtain the information required to trace back guns that have been used in crimes to unscrupulous gun dealers. As president, I intend to make it happen. We essentially have two realities, when it comes to guns, in this country. You’ve got the tradition of lawful gun ownership. It is very important for many Americans to be able to hunt, fish, take their kids out, teach them how to shoot. Then you’ve got the reality of 34 Chicago public school students who get shot down on the streets of Chicago. We can reconcile those two realities by making sure the Second Amendment is respected and that people are able to lawfully own guns, but that we also start cracking down on the kinds of abuses of firearms that we see on the streets.

His position seems to be that local jurisdictions do have the right to enact "common-sense" gun laws and that the second amendment is not absolute, but his lack of a firm position on the DC gun ban (and his attempt to avoid taking a firm position in the last few years) suggests that he is still uncomfortably torn between his own past as a big-city liberal politician and his desire to win over the same small town voters in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that he accused of "clinging to their guns."

On faith-based initiatives

If Obama’s personal membership and donations to a now controversial Chicago church with a strong community-outreach and social services component were not enough, Obama also secured thousands of dollars in earmarks for drug and ex-convict rehabilitation programs run through local churches. It is obvious from Obama’s own experience as a grass-roots community organizer on Chicago’s south side that local politics and local institutions including churches played a vital role in his political formation and it should surprise no one that he believes that local institutions with deep community roots like churches might be more effective means for delivering social services to those in need, in addition to delivering more votes from American church-goers. In his own words:

It would be pretty hard for me to be condescending towards people of faith, since I’m a person of faith and have done more than most other campaigns in reaching out specifically to people of faith, and have written about how Democrats make an error when they don’t show up and speak directly to people’s faith. The same is true with respect to gun owners. I have large numbers of sportsmen and gun owners in my home state, and they have supported me precisely because I have listened to them.

My entire trajectory, not just during this campaign, but long before, has been to talk about how Democrats need to get in church, reach out to evangelicals, link faith with the work that we do. The notion that somehow I am standing above that when that essentially describes much of what I’ve been doing over the last 20 years doesn’t make much sense.

Progressives might recognize the values that both religious & secular people share when it comes to the moral & material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I", resonates in religious congregations across the country. Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square. To say that men and women should not inject their personal morality into public policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, mush of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. What our pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. Those opposed to abortion cannot simply invoke God’s will–they have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths.

While the many non-religious folk in the Democratic party and the American left might be uncomfortable about a leader who uses religious language and speaks openly and positively about religion frequently, it should come as no surprise that Obama’s background and comfort level with religion in the public square lead him to support the provision of social services through local institutions like churches, along the lines of George W. Bush. This is certainly not a man with the reflexively skeptical and anti-religious leanings of many on the left. Faith-based social service provision is one of the cornerstones of Obama’s attempt to win over more religious voters by appealing to those aspects of their faith that are not inherently at odds with the left-wing agenda.

On campaign finance reform

The purported flip-flop is that Obama initially agreed to take public campaign financing if John McCain did so. This would give him $84 million of Federal money but severely limit his fund-raising from private donors. In February of 2008 Obama wrote:

In February 2007, I proposed a novel way to preserve the strength of the public financing system in the 2008 election. My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election. My proposal followed announcements by some presidential candidates that they would forgo public financing so they could raise unlimited funds in the general election. The Federal Election Commission ruled the proposal legal, and Senator John McCain (r-AZ) has already pledged to accept this fundraising pledge. If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.

John McCain agreed to that pledge in principle as well. However, Obama broke his pledge recently, stating:

It’s not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections. But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system. John McCain’s campaign and the Republican National Committee are fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs. And we’ve already seen that he’s not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups, who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.

I think this qualifies as a genuine flip-flop, though in Obama’s defense McCain’s sudden embrace of public financing was probably not a principled position either but the logical response to Obama’s large fund-raising advantage. Whether or not Obama aggressively pursued a public financing agreement with McCain in private, that ran afoul of details involving third-party groups, is not very clear at this point. Whether voters care about the complicated details of campaign financing remains to be seen, but Obama clearly made a calculation that opting out of public financing would increase his chances of winning. As a general issue he still appears to be more in favor of campaign finance reform than John McCain, who opposed the recent Feingold bill that attempted to make the public system more viable.

On FISA/surveillance

Obama’s support of the recent Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is probably the most devastating to his left-wing supporters, who were appalled at the retroactive immunity the bill provided to telecommunications companies that agreed to warantless wire-tapping of American citizens under the Bush Justice Department, who could have been sued for violating privacy rights. Obama voted in favor of the bill and was largely silent in the period leading up to the vote while his fellow democratic senators Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd led the effort to remove the immunity provisions from the bill. Obama’s protestations that he would not have written such a bill and does not support the immunity provision but felt the need to compromise provided little solace to civil rights activists. Obama’s vote would not have made a difference to the passing of the bill anyway as there were 18 other democrats who supported the bill, but his leadership on the issue had the potential to make a difference. While many on the left might disagree with Obama’s vote on this issue and lack of leadership, there is no evidence that he changed his position in that he never stated he would oppose the bill if it contained the retroactive immunity provision. Thus while his position may show a lack of strength or leadership and a willingness to triangulate on certain issues, it is unfair to accuse Obama of changing a position he never adopted.


Hopefully I have made the case that the "move to the center" narrative on Barack Obama has some serious holes in it, though I concede that on FISA and the gun issue one can argue that Obama has either changed a substantive policy position or not shown the type of leadership that the American left may have legitimately expected from him. In the next post I want to explore the actual ranking systems used to classify US politicians on the left to right spectrum and their methodologies, including the National Journal ranking system that classified Obama as the most liberal senator in 2007. I believe this will also provide further evidence that based on his voting record (as opposed to statements on the campaign trail) he never has been on the far-left of the Democratic party and is closer to the center of his party, which puts him around the 75th percentile on the conservative to liberal spectrum.

2 thoughts on “Manipulating and measuring the political spectrum part 1: Obama and the flip flops

  1. The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every American the right to bear arms. Has any law ever been so ambiguous? What are arms? What does it mean to bear them? At least with the first amendment we know exactly where we stand: Freedom of speech. It couldn’t be any clearer. But, the right to bear arms leaves the second amendment open to different interpretations. We need gun permits to carry a concealed weapon. Do we need knife permits? No. Yet both can, and often do, cause death. We can own a gun, or a rifle, or a sub-machine gun, or a machete, and dozens of other tools to kill, even our own bare hands. So, gun control is a debate in our country that makes no sense unless you broaden the ban or acceptance to include all instruments of death.*:

    Kind regards

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