Jul 15 2008

Obama Moves Right? Pundits Cheer

Recent campaign coverage has scrutinized the ideological positioning of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, with corporate media reporting that he has shifted toward the center on numerous issues in order to improve his chances in the November election.

While some of the “flip-flops” are debatable–with media sometimes treating longtime Obama positions as new stances–what is undeniable is that for years corporate media have advised Democratic candidates to make just this sort of ideological shift (Extra!, 9/92, 1-2/95; Extra! Update, 10/00; Extra!, 7-8/06).

The shifts cited by media included clear examples of Obama switching to a more rightward position, such as his vote for a revised surveillance bill despite a previous promise to filibuster any bill that immunized telecom companies that had cooperated with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program (Talking Points Memo, 10/24/07).

On the other hand, news accounts also treated Obama’s endorsement of the Supreme Court’s overturning of the D.C. handgun ban as a surprising reversal, even though the candidate was on record supporting the idea that the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to own weapons (ABCNews.com, 2/15/08). Media also frequently cited as a “flip-flop” Obama’s rejection of public financing, though this was based on ignoring the promise that Obama had actually made (FAIR Media Advisory, 7/3/08).

Other supposed ideological moves were more ambiguous, as when Obama told reporters at a press conference (7/3/08) that he would “continue to refine” his Iraq policy, and that “I’ve always said that the pace of our withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability.” This was widely interpreted as a sign that Obama might reverse his stated goal of withdrawing most U.S. forces from Iraq within 16 months. Obama held a second press conference the same day to explain that he had not changed his position.

A Fortune magazine web article (6/18/08) initially depicted Obama as backing off from a previously staunch opposition to NAFTA, writing that “the presumptive Democratic nominee suggests he doesn’t want to unilaterally blow up NAFTA after all” (This characterization of Obama’s NAFTA position has since been changed on Fortune‘s website.)

But the transcript of the interview posted online (Fortune, 7/1/08) reveals the substantive position on trade pacts that Obama expressed to the magazine is one that he’s been espousing for years, as summed up by the Chicago Tribune back in 2004 (9/27/04): “Obama agrees that new trade agreements need to be brokered; though he said those new agreements should promote basic worker rights and environmental protections. But he said he fears that when the U.S. government imposes tariffs, ‘it invites other countries to reciprocate.'” He’s repeated this position in the course of his presidential campaign (Toronto Star, 8/6/07): “When we negotiate trade deals, we’ve got to make sure there are strong labor and environmental provisions in those trade deals. They’ve got to be enforceable.” And he reiterated in a passage from the full Fortune interview: “I’ve always been a proponent in free trade and I’ve always been a believer that we have to have strong environmental provisions and strong labor provisions in our trade agreements.”

Real, fake or ambiguous, these shifts garnered intense media attention. “Senator Obama’s recent right turns are not unexpected, but there sure are a lot of them,” declared liberal pundit Rachel Maddow (MSNBC, 7/1/08). CBS Evening News analyst Jeff Greenfield dubbed it (6/25/08) “a relentless march to the center.”

While some media commentators were critical of Obama for “flip-flopping,” for others in the press it was simply smart politics. NBC Nightly News reporter Kevin Corke (6/29/08) summed up that both candidates “are in general election mode, trying to broaden their appeal to independent voters who’ll likely decide the election this fall.” CNN congressional correspondent Jessica Yellin (7/2/08) said that Obama could be “expanding his views, trying to reach more people.” The Associated Press (7/3/08) put it: “Still, the likeliest path to the White House cuts through the center of the electorate.”

MSNBC host Dan Abrams (Verdict With Dan Abrams, 7/2/08) thought Obama’s shift to the right was a no-brainer:

Obama supporters go after Obama for what they say is his moves to the political center. Should he have to apologize for trying to actually win this election?

Abrams would later reiterate the point in a question to one guest: “Is it that horrifying to you that Obama is actually trying to win this election by appealing to independents?

Abrams’ guest, MSNBC conservative Tucker Carlson, heartily endorsed Abrams’ assessment:

Here’s a message to all the zombies who are feeling betrayed by Barack Obama. The Upper West Side of Manhattan is not actually big enough to carry a presidential election. The country is not that crazy. You have to move to the center or you lose.

CNBC chief Washington correspondent and New York Times reporter John Harwood made the same point on MSNBC (7/1/08):

That ire on the left will feel really good to Barack Obama…. I think anything that he has that will allow himself to demonstrate to voters who haven’t been paying close attention, who don`t know much about him or aren’t that into the Democratic party, that he’s not a far-left Democrat is good news for Barack Obama.

Pundits frequently gave Obama a pass for ostensibly shifting his positions because they preferred what seemed to be his new, less progressive position. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus (7/2/08), writing that “when it comes to flip-flops, one candidate’s outrageous reversal can be another’s welcome pragmatism,” celebrated Obama’s reversal on FISA as “smart politics, yes, but also sensible as a matter of substance…. If Obama is edging toward the center on this, or on free trade, we should praise the flip, not hate the flopper.” New York Times columnist William Kristol (6/27/08) also cheered:

Even Obama’s adjustments for the general election — his flip-flops — have served in an odd way to enhance his stature. Some of them suggest, after all, that he is at least trying to think seriously about what he would do if he were actually president.

NPR‘s Mara Liasson (6/27/08) explained that Obama’s apparent softening on NAFTA, along with some mixed messages on corporate tax cuts and capital gains taxes, was part of the

time-worn trek to the political center. Primaries tend to push candidates to the extremes of their parties. General elections draw them back to the center. He’s sending a message that he is pragmatic and non-ideological.

By implication, Obama’s skepticism on NAFTA–shared by a majority of the public–was ideological and not very pragmatic.

Of all the issues, Obama’s supposed shift to the right on Iraq was one that the media seemed most enthusiastic about. Discussing Obama’s moves to the right generally, CNBC‘s Harwood said (7/1/08): “Now that the surge is nearly complete, with reduced violence to show for it, will Obama moderate his views on pulling troops out? And when? So far he hasn’t.”

When Obama’s comments on Iraq provoked a round of media coverage that pondered the question of whether or not he was actually changing his position, many in the media were encouraging a flip-flop. On ABC‘s This Week (7/6/08), Ted Koppel explained :

Obama’s advisers have conveyed to him what I’m sure he has known all along. And that is, U.S. troops are in a part of the world that produces … a huge amount of oil and natural gas. We will have U.S. troops in that region for years to come, whether we want to or not. And I think Senator Obama has come to that realization. He’s come to realize you cannot pull all the troops out of Iraq, unless you put them somewhere else. You talked a little bit about Iran and about the dangers in Iran. This is not a time to be saying, yes, we’re going to pull all the U.S. troops out of there come what may.

The Washington Post editorial page (7/8/08) declared that Obama

has taken a small but important step toward adjusting his outdated position on Iraq to the military and strategic realities of the war he may inherit. Sadly, he seems to be finding that the strident and rigid posture he struck during the primary campaign–during which he promised to withdraw all combat forces in 16 months–is inhibiting what looks like a worthy, necessary attempt to create the room for maneuver he will need to capably manage the war if he becomes president.

This has happened before. When Obama adviser Samantha Power told the BBC that his Iraq position could change depending upon the circumstances, the Post noted (4/8/08) that this was a case of her getting “in trouble for having more common sense that his candidate — or at least, more than his candidate has the courage to admit having.” When three Democratic candidates–Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards–could not pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by 2013, many in the press cheered their “pragmatic” position (FAIR Media Advisory, 10/2/07).

For some in the media, Obama’s apparent shift to the right is really just a way for him to get back to the middle. NPR‘s Mara Liasson, recalling the controversy over Samantha Power’s comments, declared on Fox News Sunday (7/6/08) that if Obama was backing away from a 16-month phased withdrawal, it would be “what the American people want a commander in chief to do. That might not be what his left-wing base does.” On ABC‘s This Week (7/6/08), Time‘s Mark Halperin explained that Obama is “going to the center. But talking on the center on Iraq is so fundamentally at odds with what he won the nomination on and what he’s talked about.”

As Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald pointed out (7/7/08), the public overwhelmingly supports withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. He cited a recent CBS poll, for example, that found 42 percent support for withdrawal in less than a year, and another 21 percent within 1-2 years. If anything, Obama would seem to be shifting away from the middle–if you believe Obama’s position has changed at all. As Kevin Drum noted (Political Animal, 7/3/08), some outlets referred to the same news in remarkably different fashion, as evidenced by these headlines:

Washington Post: “Obama Softens on Iraq Withdrawal Timeline”

New York Times: “Obama Strives to Retain Some Flexibility on His Iraq Policy”

LA Times: Obama “Restates Plan to Exit Iraq in 16 Months”

The Associated Press argued (7/4/08) that Obama hadn’t actually changed his position, then reported that Obama’s “problem” was “his change in emphasis to flexibility from a hard-nosed end-the-war stance including his recent position that withdrawing combat troops could take as long as 16 months.” But Obama’s position has long been a 16-month withdrawal of a significant number of U.S. combat forces (New York Times, 11/2/07), so that timeframe is not recent, and shouldn’t have come as a surprise to a campaign reporter.

Whether Obama will actually deliver on that promise is another matter entirely. As writer and anti-war activist Tom Hayden noted (Huffington Post, 7/4/08):

From the beginning, Obama’s symbolic 2002 position on Iraq has been very promising, reinforced again and again by his campaign pledge to “end the war” in 2009. But that pledge also has been laced with loopholes all along, caveats that the mainstream media … have ignored or avoided until now.

Ignoring the nuances of the candidate’s position and cheerleading for him to take a different one is not a recipe for informative political coverage. But then, campaign coverage is rarely about informing the voters; more often it’s an exercise in ideological sheepdogging, barking at and sometimes biting those who stray too far to the left.