I don’t think Obama is really “moving to the center” on FISA, NAFTA, guns, or even taxes. He is, to the contrary, being the authentic Obama: cautious, fairly risk-averse, willing to change his mind as facts (and sometimes political currents) warrant. The broad expanse of his policies remain center-left — or left-center. ~Marc Ambinder
Ambinder is right about this, and his post sums up the difficulty a lot of people seem to have in identifying where Obama fits on the spectrum. Despite his overwhelmingly progressive record on domestic policy, many will mistake his cautious and deliberative style as proof that he is more “centrist” than he is in this area, while others will misread some of his positions during the primary contest as proof that he is actually insufficiently progressive on domestic policy because he ran to the right of Clinton on certain things. Those who should be reassured by his record are put off by his presentation, and those who like his presentation desperately avoid taking his record seriously. Foreign policy critics from the right refuse to take his obvious interventionist and “pro-Israel” positions for what they are, while his admirers on the left and right will pretend that he is just saying these things to get elected. His position on the war in Iraq is the thing that keeps tripping up both groups, because it was a position born as a pander to an antiwar crowd that has since been mythologised into a brave and bold act of defiance. Two years later, he said he wasn’t sure how he would have voted when he was in the Senate, and then when he was in the Senate he adopted the position of those Senators who had voted for the war but had since come to regret it. Why this should inspire anything but dread in antiwar voters, I cannot say.
He still is quite far to the left and is running on the most left-leaning platform since 1972 (I have seen others say 1968), but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that he will abandon any position if it poses a political threat to his career. This is the sort of thing that some of my friends argued made Romney a preferable Republican nominee–there was nothing that he would defend to the bitter end, but was utterly flexible, which would make for a nice change from the Bush years. Perhaps, but I don’t think that this is what the Obamaites had in mind when they responded to the call for “change.”
When he flips suddenly on an issue, everyone thinks they have figured out that he is actually just an opportunist, but this doesn’t really take into account that Obama’s aversion to political risk is the “authentic Obama.” He is being true to himself, so to speak, by changing his positions on major policy questions for maximal advantage, because the purpose of the exercise has always been to advance his career. There’s nothing new or remarkable in that, and indeed his sudden rise through the political ranks would be truly unbelievable if he had spent his time standing on principle or waging doomed fights out of conviction. Instead, he has gamed the system masterfully and is on the threshold of supreme power. The question remains whether there will be anyone he won’t disappoint once he has it.