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.