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What Left Turn?
Obama Is Doing Pretty Much What He Promised

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The notion that President Obama has lurched to the left since his inauguration and is governing as an unreconstructed liberal is bunk. Obama's presidential agenda mirrors his campaign platform. He has diverged from it in a few areas -- almost entirely to the right.

Let's review:

On the war in Iraq, Obama has, wisely, stepped back from his brigade-a-month withdrawal plan and stretched his 16-month departure timetable to 19 months. It turns out that the residual force Obama discussed, sketchily, during the campaign will total 50,000 troops.

A "broken promise . . . more like occupation-lite," charged the antiwar group Code Pink.

On the legal issues entwined in the war on terrorism, Obama is, again wisely, proceeding more slowly than many civil libertarians demand. Guantanamo will be closed -- eventually. Military commissions have been halted, torture policies renounced and secret memorandums released.

Yet the Obama Justice Department backstopped the Bush Justice Department's assertion of the state secrets privilege to block lawsuits challenging wiretapping and extraordinary rendition. The administration argued that prisoners in Afghanistan cannot challenge their detention in court. It leaned on the British government to keep evidence of alleged torture secret.

"Hope is flickering," lamented Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

On contentious social issues, Obama has proceeded largely as promised during the campaign -- again, with a moderate tilt. In his education speech yesterday, Obama not only reiterated his campaign endorsement of merit pay for teachers "for improved student achievement" but also called on states to lift caps on the number of charter schools, hardly a traditional Democratic position. Obama has reaffirmed his support for a controversial measure to make union organizing easier, but he has shown no zeal for having the legislation brought up.

Likewise, in continuing the Bush White House office of faith-based initiatives, Obama retrenched from his stance that groups receiving federal funding cannot discriminate in hiring. Instead, such issues will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

"I am very disappointed," proclaimed Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Yes, you say, but what about the main event: the economy? Obama's centrist personnel choices -- Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag -- have been followed by centrist policy. Indeed, Obama has moved in a more moderate direction than his campaign had pledged.

His foolhardy promise to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans has now been linked to obtaining the revenue from his cap-and-trade emissions program. A separate promise to ease the pain of cap-and-trade-induced price increases was conveniently forgotten. The maximum tax cut has been trimmed from $1,000 to $800. Instead of trying to raise top rates immediately, Obama will wait until the Bush tax cuts expire in 2011. On health care, the president now wants his plan fully paid for with new taxes or spending cuts.

The predictable yelping about Obama piling tax increases on the wealthy ignores that he outlined precisely this during the campaign. The one additional increase is his proposal to limit the value of tax deductions for the richest taxpayers. This was not just dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. It expired in transit.

Still, given the need to focus attention and political capital on the economy, is Obama taking on too much by pursuing the full campaign menu? Maybe, but there's no harm in setting out priorities. Assuming that the economic crisis precludes doing anything else guarantees that nothing else will get done.

Aside from the economy, Obama's real focus this year is health-care reform. Even this may be biting off too much. But it's a reasonable judgment that health care is a moral and economic imperative worth the try. And lawmakers are determined to barrel ahead in any event.

The most legitimate criticism of Obama is that his vision of shared sacrifice hasn't involved much sharing, and the hard choices he talks about remain to be made. It's an open question whether he's got the spine to stand up to congressional leaders. The omens -- dropping a plan to tackle Social Security reform and abdicating responsibility for the omnibus spending bill -- are not auspicious.

And if President Obama, much like candidate Obama, has found it hard to "put an end to the politics that would divide a nation" -- well, some of us never considered that a change we much believed in.

But these are different questions from those about Obama's supposed radicalism. He's doing, or trying to do, what he promised, smoothed out by the real-world demands of governing. How shocking is that?

marcusr@washpost.com

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