There has been a flurry of disapproving blog posts about Obama's recent positions on the death penalty, FISA and late-term abortion. He spoke in support of the death penalty in the case of child rape; he voted "yes" on the FISA compromise, and commented that he felt late term abortions should only be allowed when the health of the mother was at stake - not for mental distress.
Many feel he has swerved rightward now that he has become the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party; or as Bob Herbert put it recently, "lurched with abandon."
But has he really? Or is he simply being the same Obama he has always been, but now that the fog of the primary campaign has lifted, we can now pay more attention to what he's actually saying about the issues, rather than the "he said, she said" of the primaries?
Obama has said all along that he will reach out to the other side of the aisle. He has operated as a consensus builder all his life. He has said he will be different from other politicians. Perhaps one way he is different is that he can actually see more than one side of an issue. What a concept!
Take FISA. Yes, he was opposed to the bill but changed his mind and voted for it. But he apparently felt he had a good reason. Here is what he says about it:
"This was not an easy call for me. I know that the FISA bill that passed the House is far from perfect. I wouldn't have drafted the legislation like this, and it does not resolve all of the concerns that we have about President Bush's abuse of executive power. It grants retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that may have violated the law by cooperating with the Bush Administration's program of warrantless wiretapping. This potentially weakens the deterrent effect of the law and removes an important tool for the American people to demand accountability for past abuses..."
"But I also believe that the compromise bill is far better than the Protect America Act that I voted against last year. The exclusivity provision makes it clear to any President or telecommunications company that no law supersedes the authority of the FISA court. In a dangerous world, government must have the authority to collect the intelligence we need to protect the American people. But in a free society, that authority cannot be unlimited. As I've said many times, an independent monitor must watch the watchers to prevent abuses and to protect the civil liberties of the American people. This compromise law assures that the FISA court has that responsibility.
The Inspectors General report also provides a real mechanism for accountability and should not be discounted. It will allow a close look at past misconduct without hurdles that would exist in federal court because of classification issues..."
"Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I've chosen to support the current compromise. I do so with the firm intention -- once I’m sworn in as President -- to have my Attorney General conduct a comprehensive review of all our surveillance programs, and to make further recommendations on any steps needed to preserve civil liberties and to prevent executive branch abuse in the future..."
"I learned long ago, when working as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago, that when citizens join their voices together, they can hold their leaders accountable. I'm not exempt from that. I'm certainly not perfect, and expect to be held accountable too. I cannot promise to agree with you on every issue. But I do promise to listen to your concerns, take them seriously, and seek to earn your ongoing support to change the country....Democracy cannot exist without strong differences. And going forward, some of you may decide that my FISA position is a deal breaker. That's ok. But I think it is worth pointing out that our agreement on the vast majority of issues that matter outweighs the differences we may have. After all, the choice in this election could not be clearer. Whether it is the economy, foreign policy, or the Supreme Court, my opponent has embraced the failed course of the last eight years, while I want to take this country in a new direction. Make no mistake: if John McCain is elected, the fundamental direction of this country that we love will not change. But if we come together, we have an historic opportunity to chart a new course, a better course."
I believe that Obama felt that not passing any bill on this issue would be a worse situation than passing the compromise bill. Many may not agree. But I am a firm believer in the old adage, "The best is the enemy of the good" - sometimes you can't always get what you want but if you don't take the second best choice, you get nothing.
Obama may be looking at the big picture here - if the FISA bill didn't pass at all, many of the things being done to watch potential terrorists would end completely - leaving us vulnerable. And let's face it - the Republicans would have happily used his "no" vote to paint him "soft on terrorism." An absurd claim, but somehow these claims always manage to stick. Remember, if the man doesn't get elected in the first place, he won't be able to make any of the other changes we want him to make.
A recent Op-Ed piece in the Times by Morton Halperin explained further why the compromise bill may not be such a bad thing:
"Because I rejected the Nixon administration’s use of national security as a pretext for broad assertions of unchecked executive power, I became engaged with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act when it was proposed in the early 1970s. And because I reject the Bush administration’s equally extreme assertions of executive power at the expense of civil liberties, I have been engaged in trying to improve the current legislation.
The compromise legislation that will come to the Senate floor this week is not the legislation that I would have liked to see, but I disagree with those who suggest that senators are giving in by backing this bill.
The fact is that the alternative to Congress passing this bill is Congress enacting far worse legislation that the Senate had already passed by a filibuster-proof margin, and which a majority of House members were on record as supporting.
What’s more, this bill provides important safeguards for civil liberties. It includes effective mechanisms for oversight of the new surveillance authorities by the FISA court, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and now the Judiciary Committees. It mandates reports by inspectors general of the Justice Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies that will provide the committees with the information they need to conduct this oversight. (The reports by the inspectors general will also provide accountability for the potential unlawful misconduct that occurred during the Bush administration.) Finally, the bill for the first time requires FISA court warrants for surveillance of Americans overseas.
As someone whose civil liberties were violated by the government, I understand this legislation isn’t perfect. But I also believe — and here I am speaking only for myself — that it represents our best chance to protect both our national security and our civil liberties. For that reason, it has my personal support."
I still don't like the whole idea of the legislation, believe me. But Obama's explanation does make sense when you think of him as a consensus builder, which is exactly what he has said he'd be. He's someone who tries to work within the system to make change, not be a revolutionary. The change may have to be done in small increments, the way most change is accomplished.
Regarding the death penalty, he had never said he totally opposed the death penalty. In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," he said:
"While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes--mass murder, the rape and murder of a child--so heinous that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment. On the other hand, the way capital cases were tried in Illinois at the time was so rife with error, questionable police tactics, racial bias, and shoddy lawyering, that 13 death row inmates had been exonerated
Source: The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama, p. 58 Oct 1, 2006"
Admittedly, saying the death penalty would be appropriate for child rape, where a murder did not take place, takes it one step farther. But he's never had a completely anti-death-penalty stance. Personally, I do not believe in the death penalty under any circumstances. But it's not as if he has changed markedly on this issue.
His recent statement about late-term abortion alarmed many pro-choice people as it seemed to indicate that he believed it should only be allowed to protect the physical, but not mental, health of the mother. He later clarified that he meant simple distress should not be a reason but a diagnosed mental condition would be. (Depression would then qualify).
But this position isn't something new. According to Ontheissues.org, Obama said back in April during an interview:
"On an issue like partial birth abortion, I strongly believe that the state can properly restrict late-term abortions. I have said so repeatedly. All I've said is we should have a provision to protect the health of the mother, and many of the bills that came before me didn't have that.
Part of the reason they didn't have it was purposeful, because those who are opposed to abortion have a moral calling to try to oppose what they think is immoral. Oftentimes what they were trying to do was to polarize the debate and make it more difficult for people, so that they could try to bring an end to abortions overall.
As president, my goal is to bring people together, to listen to them, and I don't think that's any Republican out there who I've worked with who would say that I don't listen to them, I don't respect their ideas, I don't understand their perspective. And my goal is to get us out of this polarizing debate where we're always trying to score cheap political points and actually get things done."
He also said:
"I absolutely think we can find common ground. And it requires a couple of things. It requires us to acknowledge that..
1. There is a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down. I think that's a mistake because I think all of us understand that it is a wrenching choice for anybody to think about.
2. People of good will can exist on both sides. That nobody wishes to be placed in a circumstance where they are even confronted with the choice of abortion. How we determine what's right at that moment, I think, people of good will can differ.
And if we can acknowledge that much, then we can certainly agree on the fact that we should be doing everything we can to avoid unwanted pregnancies that might even lead somebody to consider having an abortion."
Some may be alarmed at the idea of him talking about reducing pregnancies. But I think even the most rabid pro-choice person (and I am one) would admit that having an abortion is not an ideal situation. Yes, it is often very much so the RIGHT decision, the BEST decision, and the most empowering decision to be made. But wouldn't it always be better if it didn't have to happen at all?
As for late-term abortions, they are extremely rare and usually only done for very good reasons; his wish to keep them limited to those very good reasons is understandable, in my opinion.
I urge you to go to this link and read the full section on Obama's positions on contraception, women's right to choose, and sex education.
What I'm seeing is that Obama is not a left-wing idealogue. He is open to other ideas. Maybe some of us would rather he would be more of a left-wing idealogue. But that's not who he is. He sees nuances. He sees shades of gray. I think this is all part of his persona, someone who came from two worlds and had to make peace with both.
What he has to watch out for is muddying his message. Up until now his message has been very simple: Change. Given the unpopularity of Bush and the ineptitude of the McCain campaign, that simple message has been working well for him.
If he starts dabbling in nuance and trying to explain complex moral opinions on hot-button issues like abortion, he is going to lose his advantage. Obama is a brand: he has to remain true to that brand. The media are not able or willing to indulge him in long explanations about his thought processes. They deal in short, succinct messages and are always looking for a headline.
This is something he will need to watch out for as the campaign progresses, especially if the McCain campaign gets on track and the 527s start their shenanigans.
I am still supporting Barack Obama with enthusiasm. I am also still trying to figure him out, and reserving judgment on some of these issues that have raised concerns among many of us.