Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama put himself on the opposite side of his party's leadership in the Senate yesterday by reversing course to support a compromise intelligence surveillance bill. His vote was the most dramatic in a series of moves toward the middle that have focused new attention on where he stands and where he would take the country.
Obama's vote was not unexpected, as he had signaled earlier that he would back the compromise legislation. But the senator from Illinois found himself at odds with Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), as well as three of his opponents for the Democratic nomination, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).
Just the day before, Obama had denied suggestions that "I am flip-flopping." But in recent weeks, he has softened his once-harsh rhetoric about the North American Free Trade Agreement, embraced the Supreme Court decision overturning a District of Columbia ban on handguns and criticized the high court for rejecting the death penalty for child rape.
After telling reporters last week that he will probably "refine" his position on the Iraq war after he meets with military commanders there this summer, he gathered reporters again to say that he remains committed to ending the conflict and to withdrawing combat troops, conditions permitting, within 16 months, should he assume the presidency.
One factor in Obama's success has been his ability to confound both left and right. But while that may be a measure of a skillful politician determined to win a general election, it has left unanswered important questions about his core principles and his presidential priorities. How well he answers them over the coming months will determine the outcome of his race against Republican Sen. John McCain.
Statements he has made over the past month have ignited a debate about who Obama is ideologically. His current policy positions have convinced some progressives that he is not one of them. Matt Stoller, editor of
OpenLeft.com, said that an Obama win in November would be a victory for "centrist government," adding: "Progressives are going to have to organize for progressive values."
Republicans see a different Obama. The National Journal rated him the most liberal member of the Senate last year. His advisers say the rating system is faulty, but McCain and other Republicans say it is an accurate reflection of Obama's political philosophy.
Peter Wehner, a former Bush administration official who is now at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, considers Obama someone who can move his party to new places on race and religion. But on policy, he sees him as conventionally liberal. "The Democratic Party today is quite liberal, and Obama, if anything, will deepen the roots of its liberalism," he said.
The reality is that Obama is some of all those things. His strong opposition to the Iraq war helped draw support from the left in the primary elections. But he insisted Tuesday that he long has held many positions that are moderate rather than liberal.
If Obama becomes president, his views on the Iraq war will be tested by changing conditions on the ground as a result of President Bush's troop increase, which McCain supported and Obama opposed. Domestically, Obama would face some of the same difficult choices that Bill Clinton confronted after running on a populist "putting people first" platform in 1992 and then inheriting a major fiscal overhang. If that is what Obama were to inherit, would he call for major domestic investments -- expanding health care or putting sizable amounts of money into alternative energy development -- or would he place a higher priority on putting the country's fiscal house in order?
Democrats outside the campaign say Obama must clarify those priorities now to avoid potentially debilitating debates within his administration, should he be elected.
"If he doesn't make that new path clear during the campaign, he'll have to sort out the party's ideological direction after the election, even if he wins," said one think-tank official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Obama's challenges. "He's far better off defining it on his terms now than working it out in a caucus meeting down the road. This is his point of maximum leverage."
William A. Galston, a Clinton White House domestic policy adviser, calls Obama's candidacy "the first act of what's likely to be a multi-act drama" that needs a larger narrative thread. "Successful campaigns tell stories that provide the framework of meaning and significance for particular policy proposals," said Galston, who is now at the Brookings Institution. "That's what the Obama campaign, specifically the candidate, needs to do in the next few months."
The general-election campaign affords Obama the opportunity do that, as others have done before him, whether it be Ronald Reagan in 1980 with his pledges to tame big government and restore U.S. prestige abroad, Clinton in 1992 with his challenge to party orthodoxy as a different kind of Democrat, or George W. Bush in 2000 with priorities that he talked about continually during his campaign.
Although Clinton and Bush challenged some party orthodoxy in their first presidential campaigns, Obama has been far more reluctant to do so. And at this point, no signature policy proposal is universally regarded as distinctive in defining his politics or philosophy. What then constitutes Obama-ism? As one Democratic strategist put it: "It's pretty clear what it isn't, but it isn't yet clear what it is."
Galston cited three strands that he regards as helping to define Obama-ism. First is an "all of us together" approach that rejects "diversionary interests and short-term gains." Second is an effort to bring people together across partisan lines. Third is his effort to broaden participation in politics and his use of modern technology to do so. This appears to be a marriage of Obama's roots in community organizing and his willingness to tap the power of technology to open the processes of government to more than the traditional cadre of experts.
"What Obama is talking about is a bottom-up view of how the world works," said Andrei Cherny, editor of the journal Democracy. "When he talks about American politics and how to reform it, how America can reach out to people around the world, he is not talking in the same way Democrats talked about it 30 years ago from the top down."
"His tone is very much post-partisan and post-ideological," said one Clinton White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a frank assessment of Obama's candidacy. "The challenge will be coming up with the ideas to go with it. If you drop the same agenda into the same Washington petri dish, you'll get the same results."
Heather Higginbottom, Obama's domestic policy director, said the candidate's agenda and priorities are shaped in large measure by a reaction to what she called "the disastrous eight years" of Bush's presidency. "The priorities for the country are very clear," she said. "What we've lacked is ability to get things done. . . . He has this attitude that we can't solve these problems doing them the way we've been doing them."
Higginbottom said Obama's policy priorities begin with Iraq and the Middle East. Obama said last week that he remains committed to the idea of removing all combat troops in about 16 months, should he assume the presidency. Domestically, Obama has proposed policies for stimulating the economy and helping struggling families, for dealing with global warming and U.S. dependence on foreign oil and for achieving near-universal health-care coverage. But he has yet to make clear what his major domestic policy initiative would be for his first year in office.
Austan Goolsbee, one of Obama's top economic advisers, points to the big middle-class tax cut Obama has proposed as one example of a policy that is distinctive in defining Obama's thinking. He also said that, thematically, developing policy "from the perspective of people who use it rather than the perspective of the policy makers" sets Obama apart from Democrats who have preceded him.