Mr. Obama Goes to Washington
Many progressives wonder whether Obama will show that an outsider can force real change in government, or that the Senate club has become so insulated that Mr. Smith can no longer go to Washington. But that question brings another one: whether Obama wants to challenge the club in the first place. "There's no doubt that I will be staking out more public positions on more issues as time goes on," Obama said cryptically. Does that mean he is going to be more confrontational? "The question is not whether you end up being confrontational," he said in a tone that made clear he had been pondering that idea long before I brought it up. "The question is, Do you let confrontations arise as a consequence of your putting forward a positive vision of what needs to happen and letting the confrontation organically emerge, or do you go out of your way for it?"
By almost all measures, Obama has been a solid liberal, both in his early career as a community organizer and then as a local politician. In the Illinois State Senate he supported increased funding for healthcare and education and wrote bills to publicly finance judicial campaigns and create a state earned-income tax credit. His charisma, intellect and ability to build bipartisan coalitions were evident early in his career, fueling progressives' high hopes for him. In the US Senate, for the most part he has stuck with his party on key votes when so-called moderates didn't. For example, Obama voted against the corporate-written Central American Free Trade Agreement. And he was particularly outspoken after Hurricane Katrina, leading the charge among lawmakers demanding answers about the government's failure to protect New Orleans.
But while Obama has a solid liberal record, many believe there is a difference between a liberal and a true progressive. For example, his signature legislation today is his "healthcare for hybrids" proposal, which would give away hundreds of millions to auto companies to relieve them of some of the costs of paying for retirees' healthcare. In exchange, the companies would produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. The goals are unassailable, but the policy reflects the liberal carrot of appeasing a powerful industry rather than the progressive stick of forcing that industry to shape up by simply mandating higher fuel-efficiency standards.
The occasions when Obama has broken with his party indicate similar inclinations. Just one month into his term, the former civil rights lawyer defied the Democrats and voted for the class-action "reform" bill. Opposed by most major civil rights and consumer watchdog groups, this Big Business-backed legislation was sold to the public as a way to stop "frivolous" lawsuits. But everyone in Washington knew the bill's real objective was to protect corporate abusers. A few weeks later, though he voted against the credit-card-industry-written bankruptcy bill, Obama also voted against an amendment that would have capped credit-card interest rates at a whopping 30 percent (he defends his vote by claiming the amendment was poorly written).
Then there is the Iraq War. Obama says that during his 2004 election campaign he "loudly and vigorously" opposed the war. As The New Yorker noted, "many had been drawn initially by Obama's early opposition to the invasion." But "when his speech at the antiwar rally in 2002 was quietly removed from his campaign Web site," the magazine reported, "activists found that to be an ominous sign"--one that foreshadowed Obama's first months in the Senate. Indeed, through much of 2005, Obama said little about Iraq, displaying a noticeable deference to Washington's bipartisan foreign policy elite, which had pushed the war. One of Obama's first votes as a senator was to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State despite her integral role in pushing the now-debunked propaganda about Iraq's WMD.
In November Obama's reticence on the war ended. Five days after hawkish Democratic Representative Jack Murtha famously called for a withdrawal, Obama gave a speech calling for a drawdown of troops in 2006. "Those of us in Washington have fallen behind the debate that is taking place across America on Iraq," he said. But then he retreated. On Meet the Press in January Obama regurgitated catchphrases often employed by neoconservatives to caricature those demanding a timetable for withdrawal. "It would not be responsible for us to unilaterally and precipitously draw troops down," he said. Then, as polls showed support for the war further eroding, Obama tacked again, giving a speech in May attacking the war and mocking the "idea that somehow if you say the words 'plan for victory' and 'stay the course' over and over and over and over again...that somehow people are not going to notice the 2,400 flag-draped coffins that have arrived at the Dover Air Force Base."
Another area of retreat and equivocation for Obama is his role in party politics. He had previously said he didn't "want to be the kingmaker," because "it's never been sort of a role that I've aspired to in politics." Yet Obama forcefully intervened in a suburban Chicago Congressional primary on behalf of Iraq veteran Tammy Duckworth, the candidate handpicked by Democratic power brokers, against grassroots contender Christine Cegelis, who in 2004 garnered an astonishing 44 percent against GOP incumbent Henry Hyde and who almost beat Duckworth. Wasn't this the very kingmaking role he'd said he didn't want to be a part of? Obama said only, "There are going to be strategic questions about who do I think is best equipped to win the general elections." One senior Congressional aide said, "Obama showed himself to be the pure political hack he is. Here you have a guy whose own success was predicated on winning primaries against party-backed candidates now using his enormous political capital to go to bat for the same party machines he says he doesn't want to be a tool of."
Although Obama said such high-profile primary endorsements were rare, a similar controversy arose a few weeks later. Just as Ned Lamont's antiwar primary campaign against prowar Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman was gaining momentum, Obama traveled to the state to endorse Lieberman. Like the Duckworth endorsement, Obama's move was timed to derail an insurgent, grassroots candidate. To progressives this may seem surprising, given Obama's progressive image. But remember, according to the New York Times it is Lieberman--one of the most conservative, prowar Democrats in Washington--who is "Obama's mentor in the Senate as part of a program in which freshman senators are paired with incumbents."