If liberal Democrats and especially those further to the left are grumbling louder and louder about Obama they have no one but themselves to blame. Even the most cursory read of his record, as well as a fine comb of his speeches, statements, and interviews, shows that he never claimed bragging rights as the "most liberal Democratic senator." That term was wrongly foisted on him from the start by a political magazine, and latched onto as a hit point by conservatives.
He is what he's always been, namely a pragmatic, centrist, Democrat who when circumstances dictate will conciliate moderates and conservatives on a hot button issue that might cause political trouble. Obama's centrist bent was plainly evident during the campaign when he and Republican rival John McCain sounded more and more like political Siamese Twins on the issues of expansion of stem-cell research, immigration, faith-based social services, expanded government wiretapping, building more nuclear power plants, global warming, fair trade, and the death penalty. The similarity between the two was even more glaring as Obama edged closer to McCain on his plans on health care and taxes and the Iraq War.
These were supposed to be sacrosanct Democratic attack points against McCain.
The bitter truth is that Obama could not have gotten the stamp of approval from top Democrats, broken the cash registers on fund raising, beat down the Clinton Machine, gotten the parade of endorsements from former Reagan and Bush Sr., and even Bush Jr. officials, drawn the raves of virtually every major news outlet if there was even the slightest hint that he would be a toss caution to the wind, liberal crusader.
He has adhered close to the tight dictate of American presidential politics. That is that liberal and moderate Democrats in the early stages of the presidential political game run to the left and move quickly to the center as they sniff the possibility of victory. Republicans do just the opposite. They run to the right and scurry quickly to the center as they get the victory scent.
A big part of the Obama appeal, even mystique, as radically distinct from the political reality of who he is and the interests that he had to represent and conciliate to win, and now govern, was the historic first of being an African-American with a real shot at the White House. The other and probably even greater part of the mystique is the loath of Bush domestic and war policies, and the public's desperation to rid Washington of him.
Hillary Clinton was a Clinton, a consummate party insider, wreaked too heavily of the Beltway establishment, and to boot backed the Iraq war. To liberals she represented everything wrong with the Democratic Party.
McCain, Palin, Fox News, the gaggle of hard right talk radio hosts relentlessly hammered Obama as just another tax and spend, big government, pro-minority tilt Democrat. That put Obama on the defensive with conservatives and centrist independents. The upside was that it also cemented his credentials as a liberal reformer who would move Washington politics from the musty, back room special interest wheel and deal good ole boy politics of the past. Obama said just enough to feed that hope. However, even as he spoke about change, he was careful to keep the door open wide to reshape, massage, and contour policy issues to conform to what was pragmatic, doable and acceptable.
The near textbook examples are the two biggest ticket issues of all, the war and the economy. Despite the public fury over Congress plopping tens of billions into the pockets of bankers and brokerage houses, he vigorously backed the Wall Street bailout without pushing for any of the tough regulatory checks on the bankers that liberals and even some conservatives demanded.
Iraq. He dropped all early campaign talk of a speedy troop withdrawal and said that the war would end when the generals and command staff said it would.
Neither of these pronouncements tag him as play to the gate political backslider. It merely shows that pragmatism in presidential politics is the only real principle that counts when it comes to winning and governing.
By that standard, Obama's load up of Hillary Clinton, and former Bill Clinton intimates, officials, and Bush officials in his top gun staff and cabinet posts makes sense. They are the ones who know the Washington and Wall Street ropes, and will cautiously adhere to the established political, economic and foreign policy game rules.
Obama takes great offense at any talk that he's back flipped on the issues. He pleads for time to make the changes that liberals want to see. That's a fair plea. Though the early signs aren't good that he'll make good on that promise, liberals bet the political bank on him. They have no choice but to wait nervously and see if he will.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press January 2009)
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