July 6, 2008
Obama began it with a full-throated defence of patriotism, in front of two large American flags, invoking his white family and its history of military service. He went out of his way to praise General David Petraeus and to condemn the attack by the antiwar group Moveon.org on him as “General Betray Us”.
Obama went on the next day to brazenly coopt one of Bush’s signature policy innovations, funnelling public money to the social services of religious organisations. He ended the week by dropping his previous long-held position on a fixed timetable for withdrawal from Iraq in favour of a “re-fined” strategy of withdrawal as soon as prudently possible after consultations with generals on the ground.
All of this caps a flurry of small adjustments in the postprimary phase. We now know that Obama can live with mass wire-tapping to gain antiterror intelligence, as long as it is placed under congressional law and oversight in ways Bush tried to avoid. He was fine about the Supreme Court’s defence of gun rights in the recently decided Dick Heller case (in which a Washington DC security guard argued for his right to carry a gun to protect himself); he supported the death penalty in some extreme cases such as child rape; he ran an ad touting his own role (much exaggerated) on welfare reform; and he also plans to avoid any tax hikes on the middle class while adding some strong fiscal medicine to the well-to-do.
For good measure he was the only candidate last week with ads being broadcast on Christian radio. Yes, it was an independent group placing the ad, but its evocation of Obama’s conversion to Christianity was a bold foray into deep Republican territory.
When you examine all of these adjustments, they are not quite the bald reversals the extreme partisans on both sides are claiming. Obama’s position on Iraq, for example, has always been framed around the formula that the US should be “as careful getting out as we were careless getting in”.
His pledge of a fixed timetable for withdrawal was always going to be subject to empirical shifts on the ground in Iraq. Being careful does not mean sticking to fixed withdrawal plans regardless of reality. And as the primary season lengthened and the situation in Iraq turned surprisingly brighter, Obama found himself locked into a fast-calcifying position.
His policy was bound to become more complicated, as his former foreign policy adviser Samantha Power blurted out earlier this year. And by conceding a “refinement” of his policy the day before the July 4 holiday, Obama avoided short-term attacks on his policy “flip-flop” while making a necessary adjustment.
And there’s a point to the successive shifts: Obama is slowly undermining every conceivable reason to vote for Republican candidate John McCain. If you want to withdraw from Iraq – as prudently as possible – Obama is still your man. You now know though that he won’t risk chaos in a precipitous withdrawal regardless of the strategic and tactical situation. He will not, in other words, be susceptible to snatching defeat from the jaws of progress. Unlike McCain he is also unafraid of real diplomacy with Iran and Syria; and unlike McCain he does not threaten a hundred years of occupation in Iraq and the suspicion that he’d like the US to stay there for ever.
What can McCain say now in response? All he can say, I think, is that Obama is cynical. However, it is a little difficult to have spent the entire year portraying Obama as a radical, soft-on-terror leftist and now pivot to accuse him of being like the Clintons.
Obama, after all, is not running for Bush’s third term, but he is running after Bush’s two terms. In the brutally real world, he cannot undo the Iraq invasion. He cannot ignore the pressing need for good intelligence gained through wire-tapping after 9/11. He cannot ignore Tehran’s malevolence, while being more open to diplomacy than McCain is.
What the smarter foreign policy conservatives have long sensed in Obama is not a knee-jerk leftie, but a cool, cunning liberal strategist who could be a potent weapon for the West in the war on terror. Obama will inherit Bush’s war apparatus and it is not in his nature to dismiss all of it as useless until he has a grip on what’s working in a dynamic world. He is not going to surrender to Iran either, but he has a much better chance of wielding soft power as well as hard power in trying to avoid another conflict in the Middle East than McCain. He also has a chance to bring the American public with him – an attribute that Bush hasn’t had in his diplomatic arsenal for years.
None of this even faintly surprises me. The picture of Obama as a big-time leftist was always wrong – and more a function of the Clintons’ need to marginalise him than of any accurate portrayal of his record. His 2002 speech against the Iraq war aired a prescient worry about unintended consequences, not a deep reluctance to use military force in any circumstances.
Obama has long been a committed Christian, even of a more liberal, mainstream variety than the Republican leadership. His embrace of faith-based programmes is therefore utterly unsurprising to anyone who knows him. (The one key difference between Bush’s faith-based programmes and Obama’s is that Obama’s forbids religious charities from using public money to discriminate in hiring on the basis of faith.)
Obama also explicitly favoured the death penalty for child rapists and murderers in his book The Audacity of Hope. These are not, for the most part, U-turns or manifestations of cynicism. They are pragmatic adjustments made by a Democrat who wants to win.
This election will be about who can deliver the most change in a way that least disturbs an anxious electorate. McCain reassures in as much as he is obviously not a simple heir to Bush and Dick Cheney. But his refusal to countenance any tax increases or entitlement cuts in a debt-laden America, and his visceral hostility to diplomacy and nuance in the politics of the Middle East, worry many who have been rattled by the reckless rigidity of the Bush years.
Obama’s main liability has always been that he may be too inexperienced for an America at war and too culturally different from heartland America to win it over. In the past few weeks he has done a much better job in removing his liabilities than McCain has. This election, unlike the past two, will be won in the centre. It’s a centre in which Obama looks increasingly at home.