Obama Tilts Toward Center, Irking Some Activists
Barack Obama's support of an overhaul of domestic-spying laws last week was the latest in a string of statements suggesting the Democratic presidential candidate is tacking toward the center to compete with John McCain.
On foreign policy, national security, tax issues and even local politics, Sen. Obama has made some decisions lately that belie his ranking by the nonpartisan National Journal as the U.S.'s "most liberal" senator.
During the primaries, he ran to the left of Sen. Hillary Clinton, securing the nomination in part by shoring up a base that included self-identified liberals and Internet activists who helped fill his campaign war chest.
Some of those supporters are irked by Sen. Obama's latest moves, but the general-election season will put increased pressure on both candidates to attract moderate and independent voters.
The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, conducted in early June, showed that 58% of voters perceive Sen. Obama as a liberal and 24% view him as a moderate. In contrast, 34% view Sen. McCain as a moderate and 48% see him as a conservative.
To be sure, the predominant view among party leaders is that a turn toward the center is smart politics, and that Sen. Obama's willingness to buck the left wing on issues such as the spy bill signals he is maneuvering to fight Sen. McCain directly for voters in the middle of the political spectrum.
"I applaud it," a senior Democratic lawmaker said. "By standing up to MoveOn.org and the ACLU, he's showing, I think, maybe the first example of demonstrating his ability to move to the center. He's got to make the center comfortable with him. He can't win if the center isn't comfortable."
Sen. Obama's press office didn't respond to requests for comment.
The shift has met with some protest from the activist left. The liberal MoveOn.org, which endorsed Sen. Obama, is petitioning its members to call his campaign to object to his support of the spy bill. The group notes that he previously vowed to support a filibuster of the legislation because of immunity provisions for telephone companies that helped the government carry out its surveillance program.
Popular liberal blogs criticized the senator after he announced his support of the bill Friday. "There's an element of distrust now," Matt Stoller, a liberal activist and co-founder of the blog OpenLeft.com, said Monday at an Internet politics conference in New York.
Mr. Stoller said that Sen. Obama's position on the spy bill may not alienate the majority of his supporters, but the issue gives activists "a strong reason not to trust him or give him the benefit of the doubt."
Similarly, Sen. Obama's decision to opt out of the public-financing system for the general election was a blow to leading liberal Democrats who have championed campaign-finance reform and public financing. "This is not a good decision," Sen. Russ Feingold (D., Wis.), said in a statement Thursday.
On taxes, Sen. Obama told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview that he would consider cuts to the corporate tax rate as part of an effort to simplify the tax system, a position also advocated by Sen. McCain.
Sen. Obama's shift toward the center is particularly apparent in foreign policy. In a recent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he offered such ardent support for Israel that he had to backtrack just a few days later. Sen. Obama, working to woo Jewish voters, told the lobbying group that he supported Israel retaining control of an "undivided" Jerusalem. The comment so infuriated many Arab leaders that he was forced to issue a clarification that he didn't oppose Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over the future of the city.
He also used the AIPAC speech to tweak one of his most controversial positions -- a stated willingness to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and outline a hard-line position on Iran that is basically interchangeable with Sen. McCain's.
In his remarks, Sen. Obama said a possible meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad would take place "at a time and place of my choosing, if and only if it can advance the interests of the United States" -- and only after earlier talks between lower-ranking American and Iranian officials. He also vowed to "do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon -- everything."
On Iraq, meanwhile, Sen. Obama has been making clear that he favors shrinking the U.S. military presence there, as opposed to trying to quickly eliminate it through an immediate withdrawal.
He favors withdrawing one or two "combat" brigades a month, but the designation is vague enough that it could allow a President Obama to leave potentially significant numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he had been prepared to lobby Sen. Obama against withdrawing forces too precipitously, only to find that the senator's thinking was not that far from his own.
Mr. Zebari said that he had a lengthy telephone call last week with Sen. Obama and that he came away "reassured" that Sen. Obama wouldn't take steps to jeopardize Iraq's recent security gains. He said Sen. Obama told him he would "consult very closely with the Iraqi government and with the military commanders in the field" before ordering any withdrawals. "He will not take any drastic decisions, or reckless actions," Mr. Zebari said.
Sen. Obama's center tilt comes as Republicans have increased their efforts to paint him as a liberal -- a word that has been demagogued to where Democrats now mostly prefer the term progressive to describe their views.
In recent interviews and speeches, Sen. McCain has drawn parallels between his rival's energy policies and those of former President Jimmy Carter, who conservatives criticize for tax increases and heavy regulation.
Politically, Sen. Obama also endorsed Georgia's Rep. John Barrow, a conservative white Southern Democrat, against a liberal African-American woman, state Sen. Regina Thomas, in the July 15 primary. The move raised eyebrows, because party leaders generally don't get involved in intraparty skirmishes. While Ms. Thomas may have more appeal among Democratic primary voters, Mr. Barrow is widely viewed as in a better position to win in this swing district.
The endorsement also stoked anger on the left.
"It is up to us to create a progressive check on Obama, and we might just have our first opportunity," OpenLeft.com wrote regarding Sen. Obama's nod, agitating for Ms. Thomas to score a primary upset.
Yochi J. Dreazen, Siobhan Gorman and Amy Schatz contributed to this article.
© 2008 The Wall Street Journal