Politics & Government

Is Obama turning out to be just another politician?

Sen. Barack Obama leaves Democratic National Committee headquarters on Thursday.
Sen. Barack Obama leaves Democratic National Committee headquarters on Thursday. Jose Luis Magana / AP

WASHINGTON — From the beginning, Barack Obama's special appeal was his vow to remain an idealistic outsider, courageous and optimistic, and never to shift his positions for political expediency, or become captive of the Inside-the-Beltway intelligentsia, or kiss up to special interests and big money donors.

In recent weeks, though, Obama has done all those things.

He abandoned public campaign financing after years of championing it. Backed a compromise on wiretap legislation that gives telecom companies retroactive immunity for helping the government conduct spying without warrants. Dumped his controversial pastor of two decades — then his church — after saying he could no more abandon the pastor than abandon his own grandmother.

He said he wouldn't wear the U.S. flag pin because it had become a substitute for true patriotism, then started wearing it. Ramped up his courtship of unions. Shifted from a pledge to protect working-class families from tax increases to a far more expensive promise not to raise taxes on families that earn up to $250,000 a year. Turned to longtime D.C. Democratic wise men to run his vice-presidential search and staff his foreign-policy brain trust.

Presidential candidates often tack toward the center after securing their party's nominations. But all this tactical repositioning by Obama suggests that he's a more complex, pragmatic and arguably more opportunistic politician than the fresh face of "change we can believe in" that he presented during the primary season.

On Thursday the campaign of Republican John McCain, who's changed his own stances on tax cuts, immigration reform, offshore oil drilling and more, attacked Obama's recent shifts, suggesting that the Illinois Democrat looks especially hypocritical given his insistence that he's not like conventional politicians.

In New Hampshire, interviews this week with voters suggested that they aren't paying much attention. Even those who've taken notice generally said their enthusiasm for Obama isn't dampened.

"My support is still strong," said David Christie, 20. "And I don't think folks my age will turn on him if he keeps doing things like that. Folks my age are excited, and that's not going to die because of a couple of decisions."

Ellen Nielsen, a New Hampshire legislator, said, "Rejecting public financing does seem kind of cynical, but for someone who wants to be president, if you aspire to that job I guess you have to do it. I don't expect him to be a moral paragon. You don't get to where he is if you are."

In Illinois, fellow politicians and civic activists who watched Obama as a state lawmaker say he's a political realist who pivots when he needs to, but can be counted on to follow through on big promises.

"You have to run two different types of campaigns, one to attract the primary population, one to attract the general population," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Democrat. But Link said, "If they're trying to make him a Washingtonite, I would never believe he's going to be a Washingtonite."

Cynthia Canary, the executive director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a reform group, said: "We always should have been aware that there was a flip side to Sen. Obama being on such a tall pedestal. Sen. Obama has never been anything but human. In a way, we have done him a disservice by creating this rock and roll mythology around him."

Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe, while not acknowledging any flip-flops on Obama's part, said "we see no evidence" of frustration among voters. Polls show no impact from Obama's shifts.

Obama's aides dismiss criticism of his shifts as misunderstandings of his original positions, or merit-based decisions that Obama had never ruled out.

Indeed, Obama's positions are often nuanced.

He surprised some legal observers this week when he disagreed with the Supreme Court and said the death penalty should be applicable to child rapists — putting him on the side of conservative jurists led by Antonin Scalia and against the more liberal five-member court majority.

In the past, Obama's opposed the death penalty for gang offenses and pushed reforms in Illinois to protect against executing the innocent. But in his 2006 memoir "The Audacity of Hope," he said that some crimes such as "mass murder, the rape and murder of a child" are heinous enough to warrant "the ultimate punishment."

Eli Pariser, the executive director of MoveOn.org, said that the liberal group's members disagree with Obama over giving retroactive immunity to telecoms as part of the wiretap reforms. Nevertheless, he said, they continue to support Obama because "fundamentally, he's still running a campaign that's based on both progressive and mainstream principles," from ending the war in Iraq to making health care coverage universal.

"Is he standing up for a progressive world view? Fighting for a new vision for foreign policy? As long as our members are feeling he is, we're happy to let other people argue about the flag pin," Pariser said.

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, the publisher of the liberal blog Daily Kos, called the wiretap compromise a "really craven flip-flop" meant to immunize Obama against efforts to paint him as weak on national security.

But he defended Obama's withdrawal from public financing as legitimate because Republicans aren't committed to curbing independent attack ad spending.

Dumping Rev. Wright and the church was a flip-flop, he said, but an understandable one given the intense — and one-sided — media coverage of the flap.

Moulitsas admitted that he worries a lot about whether he can count on Obama to stay committed to quick troop withdrawals from Iraq. It's not that Obama has given him any cues to that effect, he said, but rather that, "He's a politician, and things change with politicians, at the end of the day."

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said that while Obama might be shaking the faith of some idealists with some of his shifts, politically "he's probably doing the smart thing."

This year's election is more likely to be decided on Iraq and the economy, Pitney said, adding: "This is the transition between a fantasy campaign and a real campaign. In a fantasy campaign you are in the clouds and never compromise. In a real campaign, you compromise."

Candidates have often done that, of course, but in earlier times "you didn't have YouTube," Pitney said. "The record of candidate statements is a lot more detailed and complete than it was 40 years ago."

(David Lightman contributed to this report from New Hampshire. Steven Thomma contributed from Washington.)

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