In Obama's New Message, Some Foes See Old Liberalism

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama offers himself as a post-partisan uniter who will solve the country's problems by reaching across the aisle and beyond the framework of liberal and conservative labels he rejects as useless and outdated.

But as Obama heads into the final presidential primaries, Sen. John McCain and other Republicans have already started to brand him a standard-order left-winger, "a down-the-line liberal," as McCain strategist Charles R. Black Jr. put it, in a long line of Democratic White House hopefuls.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign has also started slapping the L-word on Obama, warning that his appeal among moderate voters will diminish as they become more aware of liberal positions he took in the past, such as calling for single-payer health care and an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba. "The evidence is that the more [voters] have been learning about him, the more his coalition has been shrinking," Clinton strategist Mark Penn said.

The double-barreled attack has presented Democratic voters with some persistent questions about Obama: Just how liberal is he? And even if he truly is a new kind of candidate, can he avoid being pigeonholed with an old label under sustained assault?

Despite being rated the most liberal senator in 2007 by the National Journal, Obama has sought to confound easy categorization. While his record and platform mostly adhere to a left-leaning Democratic model, he has cast them as a common-sense response to the Bush administration. His ability to appeal to independents and even Republicans has been one of his main attractions for Democrats eager to retake the White House, and a cause for concern among some GOP leaders.

At the same time, the criticism from the McCain and Clinton operations draws a quick rebuttal from Obama's campaign. His strategists recognize that Democratic voters and the superdelegates who may end up deciding the hotly contested nomination are concerned about the electability of a candidate tagged with the "liberal" label that has fatally wounded nominees such as John F. Kerry, Michael S. Dukakis and Walter F. Mondale.

"While there's no doubt that Obama comes from a progressive bent, he's got a very rich and thoughtful approach, and that's the reason why you have both Democrats and Republicans who've worked with him who say positive things about him," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist. He chided the Clinton camp for warning about Obama's liberalism, saying she would be subject to the same critique.

"The Republican Party would very much like to run against Hillary Clinton . . . and would have no trouble taking individual votes to create the kind of caricature they want to create," he said. "It's laughable to suggest that somehow she would be impervious to that. She wouldn't be. They would have a field day."

Obama's elusiveness until now has been a source of frustration for Clinton. While her campaign now argues that Obama is too liberal, Clinton has mixed this message by attacking from the left on several issues, such as suggesting that he is weak on abortion rights, too fond of Ronald Reagan and too timid on health-care reform.

"The frustration that the Clinton campaign has felt . . . comes very much from trying to attack him from the left and right along the traditional spectrum," said Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary in Bill Clinton's administration. "But he's playing an entirely different game, and they don't know how to play that game."

In most major areas, Obama has taken positions that would seem to conform to the Republican stereotype of a liberal. Like Clinton, he favors expanding the government's role in delivering health care, and would pay for that by ending President Bush's tax cuts for the rich. He would go a step further than Clinton by lifting the limit on income taxed for Social Security, now $100,000, to set that program on firm footing.

He strongly supports abortion rights and spoke out against a Supreme Court ruling last year that upheld a ban on the procedure that some call "partial-birth" abortion. He favors allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses (after some hesitation, Clinton came out against that). He is outspoken on civil rights, and he has opposed Bush's judicial picks, staying out of a bipartisan effort to approve some nominees. While he supports the death penalty for the most "heinous" crimes, as a Senate candidate in 2004 he expressed support for strict gun control, decriminalizing marijuana and ending federal mandatory minimum prison sentences, issues he now rarely raises on the trail.

On foreign policy, he balances his opposition to the Iraq war with plans to intensify the pursuit of al-Qaeda. But he has opened the door to Republican caricature with his call to negotiate with hostile governments, and has been endorsed by the activist group

As some Republicans see it, the only things keeping Obama from being branded as one of the most liberal top presidential contenders ever are his pragmatic tone and conciliatory rhetoric.

"His personal countenance and the way he speaks and comes across is anti-ideological," said Peter H. Wehner, who served as Bush's deputy assistant. "He radiates a kind of reasonableness and fair-mindedness. He has the capacity to give voice to another person's argument even as he disagrees with them. All those things work in his favor and make it more difficult to pin an ideological label on him."

That said, Wehner added, Obama is vulnerable because he can point to no major area where he has broken with liberal orthodoxy, as Bill Clinton did with welfare reform in his 1992 campaign.

Obama indicated early last year that he might push merit pay for teachers, which is unpopular with teachers unions, but he makes little mention of that now. The one point in his stump speech where he presents himself as speaking hard truths is in telling automobile executives that they must improve fuel efficiency -- already a popular idea with Democrats.

Obama's allies insist that he does have an independent record, as he worked with Republicans in Illinois to change laws regarding campaign finance and the death penalty and in the Senate on ethics reform and nuclear proliferation. They also note that his "most liberal" ranking in the National Journal was slanted by the many votes he missed while campaigning. "He really is about bringing people together. He has strong views about things but is willing to listen and work with people with different views, rather than demonizing people," said Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), an Obama supporter.

Cass Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and an informal Obama adviser, said the candidate is imbued with a respect for the free market and personal choice that liberals do not always share. This can be seen, he said, in Obama's decision not to mandate individual health insurance in his coverage plan, unlike Hillary Clinton; his opposition to her plan to limit mortgage interest rates to prevent bankruptcies; and his vote with Republicans for the Class Action Fairness Act, which made it more difficult for plaintiffs to sue corporations.

Sunstein views Obama as a "visionary minimalist" who seeks to pursue ambitious goals that people can agree on outside the strictures of ideology.

"He's really not an old-fashioned liberal at all," Sunstein said. "He's a market-oriented Democrat from the University of Chicago with strong religious convictions."

Further confounding the liberal framing, Reich said, is Obama's multiracial background and the historic nature of his candidacy, which may distract from the usual political definitions. "Voters are amazed. They say, 'Here's the son of a black African and white Kansan, brought up in Hawaii and Indonesia, a star at Harvard Law School.' It's not a traditional biography," Reich said. "So right away people are open to the reframing that he's offering."

Supporters also argue that the liberal tag will not stick to Obama partly because the public climate has shifted toward him amid widespread disillusionment with Republican policies, scrambling traditional notions of right and left. "There's growing dismay about the war in Iraq as it enters year six, and a sense that we've neglected some real basic necessities in this country," said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), one of Obama's key red-state backers. "He's not out of step with what I hear people being worried about."

This is how Obama casts his agenda on the stump. His proposals are mostly from the Democratic canon -- annual increases in the minimum wage, higher pay for teachers, a $4,000 tuition tax credit -- yet he presents them as practical solutions whose appeal should be obvious to anyone, not as the product of one end of the political spectrum.

He mocked the emerging GOP criticism in a speech last month in Austin. "Oh, he's liberal. He's liberal," he said. "Let me tell you something. There's nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics. It's common sense. . . . There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure that everybody has health care. We are spending more on health care in this country than any other advanced country. We got more uninsured. There's nothing liberal about saying that doesn't make sense, and we should do something smarter with our health-care system. Don't let them run that okey-doke on you!"

Some on the right agree that Obama does not entirely fit the liberal mold. Stuart Butler, at the Heritage Foundation, said Obama reminds him of the inner-city advocates Butler worked with in the 1980s on issues such as housing vouchers, who worried more about whether solutions were effective than what their ideological roots were.

Andrew G. Biggs at the American Enterprise Institute said he had initially been reassured by the moderate profile of Obama's economic advisers, and assumed he had taken some of his more liberal positions for political reasons.

But whatever Obama's motivation, Biggs said, his platform is still liberal. "He's taken all these left-wing positions, and how do you get out of it later?" he said. "He doesn't have the appearance of a tax-and-spend liberal . . . but if the essence of being a tax-and-spend liberal is a lot of taxes and spending, that's what he comes down to."

Among those watching the criticism take shape is Dukakis, whose campaign ran aground 20 years ago after Republicans were able to paint the former Massachusetts governor, a relatively moderate technocrat, as a weak-willed lefty. He is confident that Obama can avoid the tag, but only if he is prepared to fight back more than Dukakis did.

"What's conservative about invading Iraq? What's conservative about a $400 billion deficit?" Dukakis said. "The terms have lost their meaning."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company