In a recent column, I argued that Barack Obama has in practice governed as a moderate conservative. Right wingers were, of course, incredulous, and insisted that he is a far left socialist no matter how thin the evidence. The truth is that Obama has always been moderately conservative – a fact that has been obvious to liberals dating back to the beginning of the 2008 campaign. It would be clear to conservatives as well if they weren’t so blinded by their partisanship and occasionally got their news from an unbiased source.
It’s not now remembered, but when Obama initially ran for president he wasn’t the preferred candidate of even the traditionally liberal African-American community. Many remembered Bill Clinton as their friend and someone whose economic policies reduced the black unemployment rate to its lowest level in recent memory – less than half of what it is today. Consequently, many African-Americans were initially inclined to support Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination, not Obama.
Many blacks were also disturbed by Obama’s biracial heritage and wondered whether he was “black enough.” Al Sharpton accused Obama of “grandstanding in front of white people” when he urged nonviolence in the wake of a racially charged court verdict. Jesse Jackson said that Obama talked down to black people when he said that they bear some responsibility for their condition, and Andrew Young joked that Bill Clinton had probably dated more black women than Obama had.
White liberals were no less concerned about Obama’s persistent deviations from their dogma. On June 25, 2008, Sen. Russ Feingold criticized him for supporting legislation giving telephone companies immunity for permitting government surveillance in national security cases, as well as for opting out of federal campaign funds, thereby undermining liberal support for campaign finance reform.
On June 30, 2008, Arianna Huffington assailed Obama for abandoning his base, saying it was politically counterproductive. “When Obama kneecaps his own rhetoric and dilutes his positioning as a different kind of politician, he is also giving his opponents a huge opening to reassert the McCain as Maverick brand,” she complained.
The next day, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the widely-read Daily Kos web site, penned a bitter attack on Obama for betraying liberals, taking swipes at left-wing groups and other offenses. “There is a line between ‘moving to the center’ and stabbing your allies in the back out of fear of being criticized,” Moulitsas said. “And, of late, he’s been doing a lot of unnecessary stabbing, betraying his claims of being a new kind of politician.”
On July 13, 2008, the New York Times published an article quoting a number of liberal activists who were deeply disappointed that Obama was giving short shrift to their issues. The article was entitled, “Obama Supporters on the Far Left Cry Foul.”
Simultaneously, some conservatives began warming to Obama. In a July 15, 2008, column, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal editorial page praised his moderate views on race, calling Obama the Mikhail Gorbachev of the civil rights movement.
Fareed Zakaria, in a July 18, 2008, column for Newsweek, praised Obama for his foreign policy realism. “What emerges is a world view that is far from that of a typical liberal, much closer to that of a traditional realist,” he wrote. “It is interesting to note that, at least in terms of the historical schools of foreign policy, Obama seems to be the cool conservative and McCain the exuberant idealist.”
Even arch supply-sider Larry Kudlow professed admiration for Obama’s pragmatism when he wrote, “Lo and behold, Team Obama is moving toward the supply-side and pivoting toward the political center on key aspects of its tax policy.” He was impressed that Obama had promised not to raise the tax rate on capital gains any higher than 20 percent, a promise he has kept.
Soon, a large number of prominent Republicans and conservative intellectuals were publicly endorsing Obama. Following is a short list:
Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s White House chief of staff;
Charles Fried, Reagan’s Solicitor General;
Ken Adelman, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for Reagan;
Colin Powell, Secretary of State under George W. Bush;
Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary;
And Jeffrey Hart, former senior editor at National Review magazine and speechwriter for Reagan and Richard Nixon;
Radio talker Rush Limbaugh was so alarmed by conservative defections to Obama that he read the riot act to his “ditto heads.” He said it was “maddening” that Obama “is moving right” and sounding as conservative on many things as McCain. To counter these inroads among conservatives, Limbaugh handed down his marching orders: “We have to portray this guy as inexperienced, far leftist, despite what he’s saying about moving to the center.”
According to exit polls, Obama ended up with 20 percent of the conservative vote in 2008.
After the election, many conservatives who thought that Obama’s centrism was a campaign ploy were shocked when he followed through with appointees that could – and often did – hold positions in Republican administrations. Looking at Obama’s national security team, foreign policy hawk Max Boot professed himself “gobsmacked.” Most of them, he admitted, “could just as easily have come from a President McCain.” On economic policy, many conservatives expressed comfort with Obama advisers Paul Volcker, Larry Summers, Austan Goolsbee, and Jason Furman.
Fred Barnes of the right-wing Weekly Standard spoke for many conservatives when on December 8, 2008, he said: “It’s not that Obama, despite his unswervingly liberal record in the Senate, turns out to be a pragmatist. The point is he’s pragmatic (so far) in one direction – rightward. Who knew?”
Even Jennifer Rubin, now the resident right-winger at the Washington Post, wrote on January 5, 2009, “So far it’s hard to imagine McCain would have been doing more than the incoming Obama team seems to be proposing…to further some key center-Right policy aims.”
No doubt, many of these conservatives would say today that they are disappointed that Obama didn’t follow through on his centrist promise. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Obama’s conservatism, which I believe is fully evident in his policies as president, has long been there to see by those willing to be honest with themselves.