By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007
For antiwar Illinois Democrats, the speech that made them fall in love with Barack Obama was not the one he gave in Boston in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention, but one two years earlier at a hastily organized rally in Chicago on the eve of the congressional vote to authorize the Iraq war.
"I don't oppose all wars," Obama, then a state senator, said on Oct. 2, 2002. ". . . What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."
This week, Obama quoted his own words in a speech on Iraq that chastised those who "took the president at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves."
But some antiwar Democrats have raised questions about the depth of Obama's opposition, taking aim at one of the signature arguments for his candidacy -- that he is the only leading Democratic candidate who opposed the war from the beginning.
They say that while Obama did argue against the war as a Senate candidate, he tempered his rhetoric and his opposition once he arrived in the Capitol, rejecting timetables for withdrawal and backing war funding bills. He returned to a sharper position, they say, when he started running for president.
"So many politicians were afraid" to oppose the war, "so he gets credit for that," said Jim Ginsburg, a Chicago Democratic activist. He backed Obama when he ran for the Senate in 2004 but says Al Gore is his preferred candidate for president.
"Some of his actions and speeches once he got in the Senate did not match his rhetoric," Ginsburg, the son of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said of Obama. "He started making very mealy-mouthed comments and voted to authorize funding for the war. Once he started seeing how angry Democrats were, his rhetoric has turned to where it was in the 2004 campaign."
Obama's early opposition to the war, his advisers say, presents a telling contrast with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and fits neatly into the candidate's larger argument that experience in Washington is not important.
At the same time, its political benefit has been limited: Polls of Democratic voters show that those who favor immediate withdrawal from Iraq and who say the war is the top issue favor Clinton, as do Democrats overall. And some in the party's Net roots -- the bloggers and online activists who have grown in influence and were also early critics of the war -- argue that former senator John Edwards of North Carolina has been more outspoken in his opposition in the past two years.
"It's great [Obama] had good judgment," said Markos Moulitsas Z?niga, who runs the popular liberal blog Daily Kos, but he added: "There's no clarity of message." Moulitsas said that Obama should have firmly come out against any bill that offers funding for the war without a timetable for withdrawal, as Edwards has.
"Barack Obama was against the war from Day One and has consistently fought to end it in the quickest, most responsible way possible," responded Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "Friends can disagree, but Obama has been one of the steadiest antiwar voices in Washington since he got there."
In a speech Wednesday, Obama offered his most detailed plan yet for getting troops out of Iraq, calling for the withdrawal of at least one of the 20 brigades (each made up of about 3,500 soldiers) in Iraq every month starting now, with all combat troops out by the end of next year. And even among the most antiwar audiences, Obama still has many supporters.
"He's been there from the very beginning," said Tom Andrews, the national director of a group called Win Without War.
That beginning dates to the fall of 2002, when a group of 15 liberal activists in Chicago, furious about the Bush administration's intentions in Iraq, were organizing a rally to show opposition.
They were not sure who would show up, even in liberal Chicago, as many leading Democrats all over the country were strongly backing President Bush's war effort. Along with inviting a group of clergymen and more senior political figures in the city, such as Jesse L. Jackson, one of the activists, Bettylu Saltzman, called Obama.
Saltzman said she had not even heard Obama's position on the war but thought that, as one of the more liberal members of the state Senate, he would be against it. Dan Shomon, a political strategist who was advising Obama at the time, said Obama told him he was concerned he would be perceived as a pacifist if he attended the rally. Shomon told Obama it was important to speak on a core issue, particularly with longtime allies such as Saltzman organizing the event.
At the rally, Obama spoke after Jackson, and a story in the next day's Chicago Tribune did not even mention his appearance. But the fiery speech, much different from the unifying address he would give almost two years later at the Democratic convention, impressed many of the antiwar activists, who would become important backers of Obama's underdog Senate campaign.
"Bush's ratings were at an all-time high," said Marilyn Katz, another organizer of the rally, who is now one of the top fundraisers for Obama's 2008 campaign. But Obama "was willing to stand up and stake out a leadership position."
Obama has cited the speech as evidence of his leadership on difficult issues. "When I opposed this war before it began in 2002, I was about to run for the United States Senate, and I knew it wasn't the politically popular position," he told a crowd in Iowa in July. "But I believed then and still do that being a leader means that you'd better do what's right and leave the politics aside."
Elizabeth Edwards, whose husband has strong support among bloggers and in the antiwar movement despite having voted for the war when he was in the Senate, has questioned that notion. She told the Progressive magazine this summer that Obama is behaving in a "holier than thou" way on the war, arguing that his 2002 speech was "likely to be extraordinarily popular in his home district."
Ginsburg, the Chicago activist, said that "Barack was playing to a friendly crowd" and added: "Especially in Chicago, where all the Democrats are, that was not a particularly unpopular position at the time."
When the war started going badly, Obama continued to criticize it and attacked others in the Senate primary for not opposing it earlier. "I am the only candidate in this race to have publicly opposed the war in Iraq before it started," he said in February 2004.
But once he arrived in the Senate, after winning the primary and easily dispatching his Republican opponent, Obama did not emerge as a key voice on the war.
Days after Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) gave a teary speech in November 2005 calling for the immediate pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq, Obama called for a phased reduction in troops but emphasized that he was against a timetable for withdrawal.
"I'm not a military man," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I'm not running the war in Iraq."
In 2005 and 2006, Obama backed several bills that funded the Iraq war. In July 2006, when Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.) pushed for a bill that would set a timetable to remove combat troops from Iraq by July 31, 2007, Obama, like Clinton, voted no.
Six months later, as his campaign got underway, Obama laid out a precise timetable for completing the withdrawal of combat troops. His aides say he took that position as he became more concerned with the situation in Iraq, particularly when the president proposed an increase in troops. Feingold said in June of his party's field of candidates: "Just about every one of them in the past mouthed that timelines are a bad idea -- all of that was just false, and now they are voting for them."
In November, Obama suggested that his position on Iraq was similar to Clinton's.
"It's not clear to me what differences we've had since I've been in the Senate," Obama told the New Yorker magazine. "I think what people might point to is our different assessments of the war in Iraq, although I'm always careful to say that I was not in the Senate, so perhaps the reason I thought it was such a bad idea was that I didn't have the benefit of U.S. intelligence. And, for those who did, it might have led to a different set of choices. . . . We were in different circumstances at that time: I was running for the U.S. Senate, she had to take a vote, and casting votes is always a difficult test."
Obama, like Clinton, now says the situation in Iraq is untenable and troops must start returning home as soon as possible, but he adds that withdrawal will take more than a year.
But unlike Clinton, he is not blaming Bush alone for the war.
"You know, I welcome all of the folks who have changed their position on the war," Obama said in Iowa on Wednesday. ". . . But if we have learned anything from Iraq, it is that the judgment that matters most is the judgment that is made first."