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Liberals Need a Reality Check on Obama

02/18/2009 11:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Some liberals loudly grumble that Obama has backpedaled on his promises to totally dismantle the most odious of Bush policies. They're ticked at him because he did not dump all of Bush's restrictions on stem cell research, the discrimination encoded in the faith based programs, downplayed talk of Buy American, and will not haul Bush officials accused of condoning torture and illegal wiretapping into a court docket. Before the year is out Obama will probably back slide on other campaign promises.

That's inevitable, so it's time for a reality check. Obama made many promises when he was in a hot race with Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic presidential nomination. He made more promises when he was in a seesaw battle early on with Republican rival John McCain to bag the White House.

Obama simply did what all candidates do who want to win. He made promises, lots of promises, that he could not fulfill, at least not right away, and not in the way those who literally took him at his word want him to. The big difference between a presidential candidate and a president is that the candidate does not have to work with Congress, Wall Street, corporations, the Defense establishment, and most importantly, the other party to get legislation passed.

Presidential candidates often sound like wild men on the campaign trail and then quickly settle into good centrists in the White House. They'll invariably litter the trail with bruised and hurt feelings, dashed hopes, and they'll hear shouts of betrayal. Obama has heard that sooner than most in part because liberals put a blind faith belief in his promise to make instant change. And in greater part because the horror of Bush policies was so great, they morphed Obama into the near mythical man on the white horse who could magically right all political wrongs. Obama saw this coming and has done everything he could to damp down expectations that he could make quick changes. But he really didn't have to do that.

A cursory read of his record, as well as a fine comb of his speeches, statements, and interviews, that the talk of Obama as an unreconstructed far out liberal was mostly talk by first Clinton, and later by conservative talk jocks, Sarah Palin and the GOP attack teams.

Obama was and is a pragmatic, centrist Democrat. If he was anything else he could never 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. He could not have drawn the raves of virtually every major news outlet if there was even the slightest hint that he was the much demonized populist thumping crusader.

Obama's centrist bent was plainly evident during the campaign when he and Republican rival John McCain at times sounded like they were more agreement than not 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 more glaring when Obama edged closer to McCain on their plans on health care and taxes and the Iraq War.

This did not mean that Obama was a McCain in sheep's clothing. It just meant that he had to find a middle ground on these issues to insure that McCain and GOP conservatives did not do everything they could to torpedo his programs when he got in the White House.

The truism in American presidential politics is that liberals and even one time progressives always run to the political left in the early stages of a campaign. They then move quickly to the center or even rightward as victory becomes a real possibility.

Even when Obama spoke most passionately about change he kept the door wide open to reshape, massage, and contour policy issues to conform to what was pragmatic, doable and acceptable. He had the standard liberal reservations that the bailout gave too much away to bad behaving, profligate spending banks and that massive tax cuts wouldn't do much to help the poor and the middle class unemployed. But he backed the bailout and tax cuts, albeit modified, to get the support of a handful of congressional Republicans. He opposed the Iraq war, but if he pushed for a quick and immediate withdrawal military conservatives would howl and dig in their heels to resist. He pragmatically talks about flexible timetables and a phased withdrawal.

It's still way too early in the political game for liberals and progressives to toss backslider, betrayer, or flip flopper labels at Obama. He'll be in the White House for at least the next four years and that's plenty of time for him to make good on his campaign stump promises. It's also plenty of time to keep reminding him about them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press January 2009)