Obama is shifting to the center

Times Staff Writer

Barack Obama, as he introduces himself to the broader voting public, is emphasizing centrist -- even conservative -- positions on hot-button issues.

In recent weeks, he toughened his stance on Iran and backed an expansion of the government’s wiretapping powers. On Wednesday, he said states should be allowed to execute child rapists. When the Supreme Court the next day struck down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns, he did not complain.

These views would fit many Republican candidates, but they are the recent profile adopted by a man who has been called the most liberal Democrat in the Senate.


In the primary season, candidates’ chief goal is usually to win their party’s most ideologically driven voters; afterward the candidates often adjust their policy stances. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, has also changed tack on an array of issues. But Obama has drawn attention for the number of issues on which he has taken a moderate stance in recent days.

“I’ve been struck by the speed and decisiveness of his move to the center,” said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.

At the same time, Obama has proposed a host of government spending initiatives that give Republicans plenty of ammunition to brand him a liberal. And they cite his ranking by National Journal magazine -- called misleading by Obama’s aides -- that identified him as having the most liberal voting record in the Senate in 2007.

But other recent moves by Obama chart a more moderate course.

He disagreed with this week’s Supreme Court decision barring the death penalty for child rape, saying that states should be able to impose such a penalty for “heinous” crimes.

Obama has long supported the death penalty, but he has also expressed doubts about whether it’s an effective deterrent and applied fairly.

Obama’s reaction to another Supreme Court ruling, which struck down a gun ban in Washington, D.C., stood in contrast to that of many local political leaders and was more tempered than that of many liberals. Whereas his hometown mayor, Richard M. Daley of Chicago, and Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton sharply criticized the court decision, Obama was more welcoming. He said the ruling “reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe.”


Meanwhile, after calling the North American Free Trade Agreement a “big mistake” during the primary season and saying it should be renegotiated, Obama has recently toned down his rhetoric and emphasized his record of support for free trade. He also angered many union and liberal activists by naming a chief economic advisor who has extolled the virtues of globalization.

Facing criticism that he may be too willing to negotiate with Iran, Obama in a recent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee took a tough line on protecting Israel against Iran.

This month, he announced that he would opt out of the public financing system for presidential elections, continuing to raise money from private donors, rather than adhere to the spending limits that come with it. Earlier, he had pledged to take public funds if his GOP opponent did.

And Obama endorsed a compromise wiretapping bill despite stiff opposition from liberal activists., the liberal online activist group, asked its members to flood Obama’s campaign office with phone calls and e-mails urging him to support a filibuster of the bill.

The changes carry some risk that Obama will diminish the image he has sought to build as a new type of leader who will change how Washington conducts business. McCain and other Republicans have used his recent policy statements to argue that Obama is a traditional politician, unwilling to take clear stands on tough issues and abandoning his principles when he finds it advantageous.

For example, McCain’s campaign said Obama was unable to give a clear account of whether he viewed the Washington gun ban as constitutional, an issue on which Obama and his campaign have given mixed signals. And when Obama announced that his campaign would not take public funding, McCain’s spokeswoman accused him of failing to stand by his principles.


But Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, said the Illinois senator’s record has been consistent, not tilting to the center for political purposes. “He’s committed to making decisions he thinks are right,” said Burton. “He’ll continue to do that as president.”

Some analysts say the moves amount to smart politics, showing that Obama is not chained to his party’s most devoted liberals. “If Obama doesn’t do what MoveOn wants, it will show some degree of independence,” said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution.

“He’s a good politician. He’s doing all he can to make sure people know he would govern as a post-partisan moderate,” said Matt Bennett, a policy analyst with Third Way, a Democratic centrist think tank.

While Obama is making a play for centrist voters, McCain’s strategy seems more geared to pinning down his party’s conservative base, as he has steadily tacked to the right on a range of issues.

He has abandoned or downplayed views on which his reputation as a maverick are based: his opposition to President Bush’s tax cuts, his liberal approach to handling illegal immigrants and his opposition to offshore oil drilling.

McCain is bringing his campaign agenda in line with party orthodoxy because many conservatives still view him with suspicion due to past departures from core GOP positions. His burden is to mobilize a party that is fractured and seemingly unenthusiastic about its standard-bearer.


Eddie Mahe, a McCain supporter and former GOP official, said that McCain has to position himself for conservatives “in a way that provides them a motivation and incentive to vote.”

Last week, McCain reversed course and announced that he supports offshore oil drilling. On tax policy, McCain has come to support an extension of Bush’s tax cuts. What’s more, he has proposed additional cuts in corporate tax rates and other business breaks.

He has backed away from supporting an immigration plan that conservatives loathed because it offered a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants already in the country.

Despite those adjustments, many in McCain’s party seem lukewarm about his candidacy. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found recently that 45% of those who planned to vote for McCain said they would do so with enthusiasm. By contrast, 81% of Obama voters said they were enthusiastic.

But Mahe said the Arizona senator would pick up support among conservatives as they learn more about Obama’s record. “The best shot they have to motivate the base,” he said, “is to get people to see how liberal he is.”