Calculation and Conviction

Barack Obama campaigning in North Conway, N.H.
Barack Obama campaigning in North Conway, N.H. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)
By Fred Hiatt
Monday, November 26, 2007

Barack Obama suggests that Hillary Clinton is guilty of triangulating, poll-testing and telling the American people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.

Maybe so. But then it's fair to ask: Is Obama telling the American people anything they don't want to hear? More specifically, as he campaigns for votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, is he saying anything except what polls suggest Democrats there might want to hear?

His campaign points to Obama's traveling to Detroit to endorse higher fuel standards for automobiles, his preaching parental responsibility in black churches and his refusing to promise Iowa activists that he will cut the defense budget. He backs driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, not a crowd-pleaser this electoral season.

But to the extent that Obama's positions have shifted over the past several months, they've shifted uncannily to where middle-class Democratic voters happen to be.

Obama still presents himself as the candidate who can rise above the tired old debates and tell everyone "what they need to hear," as he said in an address on schools last week. But what he said about schools was what Democrats and the teachers unions want to hear: Schools need more money. Merit pay for teachers has morphed, in his plan, into a "professional compensation system designed with the help and agreement of teachers' organizations." And making sure schools teach all children, especially poor and minority children, to read and do math is derided as preparing children "to fill in bubbles on standardized tests."

In keeping with the pacifism of much of the Iowa caucus electorate, Obama now attacks Clinton for a position on Iran that is nearly identical to one he espoused a few months ago. On Iraq, he used to agree with her that some troops would stay to fight al-Qaeda and other terrorists, train Iraqi forces, and guard embassies. Now he says the anti-terrorist mission might be accomplished from outside Iraq, and recently on "Meet the Press" he dropped the training idea altogether.

In September, he proposed $80 billion in tax goodies for middle-class earners, including a tax credit that wouldn't be phased out until earnings reached more than $200,000.

It's true that he favors the tiny Peru trade agreement. But with polls showing increasing anxiety in Iowa about globalization, Obama has turned up the anti-trade rhetoric, opposing the more meaningful agreement proposed with South Korea and ignoring NAFTA's record of raising living standards here and in Mexico.

It's also true that, more responsibly than Clinton, he acknowledges a fiscal challenge for Social Security. But where he used to accept that all possible remedies must be on the table to achieve a political compromise, he now opposes benefit cuts and proposes to solve the problem with, yes, a tax hike on the rich.

You could argue that there's nothing terrible or surprising in this. People who run for office, unless they're totally quixotic, respond to voters' views; that's the point of democracy. It's commonly accepted that Democrats "run left" in the primaries and then shift toward the center in the general election, while Republicans perform the mirror-image dance. A little cynical, maybe, but nothing new; by this reading, Clinton, as the front-runner, has just had the luxury of shifting a bit early.

But campaigning does pose a test of character: Are there any principles that a candidate holds strongly enough to take an electoral hit -- or to try to lead and bring the electorate along -- rather than follow the polls? This year and over the years, we've seen, for example, that John McCain has some such principles: on Iraq, on immigration, on curbing the influence of money in politics. With the rest of the field, in both parties, it's not so clear.

The question is particularly acute for Obama, because of his line of attack on Clinton and because he built his candidacy on two foundations: that he can heal the nation's partisan divisions and that he will lead "not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction," as he said in Iowa this month. Without those distinctions, he's just a former state legislator from Illinois with a half-term, and few accomplishments, in the U.S. Senate.

But when the first selling point left him stuck in second in national polls, he shifted, apparently without much difficulty, to attacking Clinton from the left. And at some point it's no longer enough to describe yourself as courageous. Obama followed his not-calculation-but-conviction statement, in a speech generally credited as one of his strongest of the fall, by pledging to stand up to corporate lobbyists, end the war in Iraq and take tax breaks away from companies that send jobs overseas -- not exactly bitter medicine for his Democratic audience.

In the last Democratic debate, Obama again laced into Clinton for not providing "straight answers to tough questions," but it seemed a bit half-hearted. Maybe that's a good sign; maybe he's not happy with how his campaign has diverged from what he promised it would be.

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