Obama’s Prudent Inconsistency

Only Barack Obama Consistently Opposed NAFTA Flyer If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Barack Obama is a wise man, indeed.

He’s changed his mind a lot lately. The latest example is NAFTA. After having campaigned in Ohio and elsewhere on the need to renegotiate our trade agreement with Canada and Mexico and excoriating Hillary Clinton for her long-time support for it (all the while Austan Goolsby was telling the Canadians that this was just “policy positioning” and not to take it seriously), the presumptive Democratic nominee issued a major course correction yesterday. He’s told Fortune magazine’s Nina Easton that he may have been a bit hasty.

“Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified,” he conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake,” despite nonpartisan studies concluding that the trade zone has had a mild, positive effect on the U.S. economy.

Does that mean his rhetoric was overheated and amplified? “Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don’t exempt myself,” he answered.

Obama says he believes in “opening up a dialogue” with trading partners Canada and Mexico “and figuring to how we can make this work for all people.”

Not surprisingly, those on the Right are hammering Obama for his inconsistency while some on the Left feel betrayed. HuffPo’s David Sirota sniffs, “You Can’t Represent the Uprising While Undermining It.”

Obama is trying to find a “third way” on a binary issue. He’s trying to make everyone happy – and he seems to think you can simultaneously appease Corporate America and American workers on trade rules that inherently force politicians to take one side or the other. You either have trade rules that are aimed at helping ordinary workers, or trade rules that are aimed at padding corporate profits and enriching a transnational elite. The idea that you can have both – or worse, that the NAFTA model does both – is absurd.

But this is Obama’s M.O. – he wants to please everyone. The problem for him is that the public – based on polls – knows that these policies are binary and are screwing them. If he talks out of both sides of his mouth on this issue, he will fail to represent the uprising and take advantage of this populist moment – and he will likely lose the election. That would be a huge tragedy.

NAFTA isn’t the only major policy platform on which his position has conveniently evolved in a more centrist direction in recent weeks.

Obama has started recalibrating some of his stances for the general election, and this new [foreign policy adviser] team could steer him further away from some of the bolder positions he took in the primaries.

[Madeline] Albright publicly praised Clinton’s comments that she would not meet leaders of rogue nations without pre-conditions, after Obama said he would hold such meetings and criticized Clinton’s stance. While not taking on Obama directly, [Lee] Hamilton in a recent interview said “you cannot lock yourself into something in a fluid situation” when asked about setting a precise timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Obama has indicated some flexibility on both issues in recent weeks, saying he would meet with leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad only to advance U.S. interests, and he would consider revising his plan to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq in this first two years in office if the situation there suggested a different approach.

In the cases of Ahmadinijad and Iraq, I believe Obama has genuinely evolved. He began this campaign as a neophyte on the national stage and foreign policy has only recently been an object of serious focus for him. It’s quite reasonable to think that he gave an honest, gut answer to the debate question and has since been persuaded by wiser heads that reality is more complicated than theory. In the case of NAFTA, I’m inclined to agree with Doug Mataconis that Obama is guilty of sheer pandering given the contemporaneous comments by Goolsby.

Ed Morrissey quips, “Keeping track of Obama’s positions feels like being a spectator at a table tennis match.”

Jim Hoft asks, “Is anyone really surprised by this?”

They shouldn’t be. Obama’s right: “Politicians are always guilty” of pandering to their audiences. It’s especially true of presidential candidates, who invariably tack to the center after months of appealing to an ideologically rabid base to win the nomination. Bruce McQuain observed, “The more I see and hear of Mr. Obama, the more I realize there’s nothing at all ‘new’, in a political sense, about him.”

Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing?

While politicians should absolutely be called on politically convenient policy maneuvering to both punish them for demagoguery and to ferret out what they really think, it’s far better that they ultimately adopt reasonable positions rather than stubbornly holding to ill-advised pledges. Obama has rightly been criticized for the latter in getting trapped into supporting an “accidental foreign policy” rather than admitting he was too glib in answering a debate question.

There’s a better than even chance this man will be our next president. It is, as Dave Schuler observed on yesterday’s episode of OTB Radio, quite reassuring that he’s amenable to reason.

UPDATE: John Ibbitson makes a related point very nicely for the Globe and Mail.

[I]n any election, voters should be asking themselves: Would this candidate learn from failure, or would he reinforce it? Mr. McCain’s decision to fire his campaign staff and retreat to New Hampshire when all seemed lost suggests that he can adapt his tactics and keep up his spirits in the midst of political adversity.

Mr. Obama tried to place his attachment to Rev. Jeremiah Wright within the context of race and religion in America. But when Mr. Wright renewed his outrages, the candidate repudiated the pastor entirely.

Both examples are encouraging. What each man has on his CV is really not that big a deal. The big deal involves judgment, objectivity and a sort of political humility, which in a politician can be the most important, and most elusive, asset of all.

Quite.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Frankly, I think it’s imprudent for Republicans to chide Obama when his policy preferences evolve in the direction they’d prefer. Inconsistency isn’t necessarily a vice and consistency isn’t necessarily a virtue.

    As I’ve mentioned before I think that both political parties are completely insane on certain issues. That means that any sane candidate will need to say things to get elected that, as the now-sacked Samantha Powers noted, they won’t be committed to once they’ve been elected.

  2. davod says:

    The Belmont Club has a view on Obama and his prudent inconsistency on Iraq(Look at the Chumchumal post):
    Just why exactly did Barack Obama suddenly become concerned with providing security for Iraqi reconstruction in April, 2004?
    .

    Prudent inconsistency or follow the money?

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    davod, does the phrase post hoc propter hoc mean anything to you? There’s no smoking gun there. Maybe someday somebody will find one but until then it’s just conspiracy theorizing.

  4. Eric says:

    I think a more balanced approach regarding this topic would have been to contrast (compare?) Obama with McCain. I mean, seriously, hardly a day goes by where McCain isn’t completely reversing his position on some issue–to the point where any serious and balanced carping should necessarily include discussion of McCain’s own flips/flops.

    Is this truly a case of flip-flopping, or should conservatives pull the stick out of their own eye before they try to take the sliver out of mine?

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    Can you imagine the fun of watching the political roller coaster of an Obama presidency. Remember the Clintons and the fun of watching the left defend what they previously condemned (e.g. NOW and senior executives getting blow jobs from underlings and then lying about it). We already have come full circle on ‘count every vote’ just with the primary. It would be interesting to find what principled stand on any issue the left would have after an Obama presidency.

  6. Eric says:

    Remember the Clintons and the fun of watching the left defend what they previously condemned (e.g. NOW and senior executives getting blow jobs from underlings and then lying about it).

    Yeah, because it’s unheard of for a man to lie about getting a blow job from someone other than his wife. But it’s apparently OK to lie about say, reasons for going to war, or torture, etc. I mean, wouldn’t want “leftists” to blow all out of proportion a “little dunk in the water,” right?

    It would be interesting to find what principled stand on any issue the left would have after an Obama presidency.

    Oh, yeah, because the Republicans have been so very principled these last seven years. Paragons of virtue compared to those evil, nasty Clintons.

    Like I said, take the stick out of your own party’s eye before trying to take the twig out of the other party’s eye.

  7. bains says:

    John Ibbitson makes a related point very nicely for the Globe and Mail.

    Oh please. What Obama is doing is political maneuvering, pure and simple. He ran left in the primary to earn favor of the far-left netroots and is now moving back towards the center. That he is doing so, so inartfully, speaks to his learned ineptitude. Case in point, Obama did not throw Rev. Wright from the train because of renewed outrages, rather that the dominate liberal media could no longer avoid covering the continuing story.

    That Obama’s positions are changing is of passing interest to me – all politicians do so – rather that he is no different from other politicians. All that blather about hope and change prove to be mere political props cynically deployed to curry favor (electoral and financial support).

  8. What Obama is doing is political maneuvering, pure and simple. He ran left in the primary to earn favor of the far-left netroots and is now moving back towards the center. That he is doing so, so inartfully, speaks to his learned ineptitude. Case in point, Obama did not throw Rev. Wright from the train because of renewed outrages, rather that the dominate liberal media could no longer avoid covering the continuing story.

    A politician acting politically.

    How very shocking.

    Seriously, since I assume that most of the people who frequent OTB aren’t exactly caught up in the Obama-mania, I really don’t understand why there’s all this focus on changed positions.

    That’s politics.

    Yea, it’s not the kind of politics that people who have Obama-gasms like to think about, but does anyone with a brain really think that Barack Obama could not have gone from Chicago street politics, to Illinois state politics, to the United States Senate, and then become the Democratic nominee for President without having, and acting on, some very keen political instincts ?

  9. bains says:

    …does anyone with a brain really think that Barack Obama could not have gone from Chicago street politics, to Illinois state politics, to the United States Senate, and then become the Democratic nominee for President without having, and acting on, some very keen political instincts?

    I don’t doubt that he is intelligent – you dont get thru Harvard otherwise – what I wonder about, is how incurious, even perhaps intellectually lazy the man has become? Remember, not only was he handpicked by well connected Chicago political machine members, but for both state and US Senate runs, he had the boards cleared for him. He has had by far, the most favorable media coverage of any candidate on the national stage in thirty years. The only real test was against Sen Clinton and look how poorly he performed.

    Sen. Obama is a slate upon which the dominate liberal media keeps on wiping away chalk and re-writing upon. He is the candidate of hope and change without any concrete supportive evidence. All we have are testimonials from the choir. What policy changes such as this, broken pledges such as walking back the ‘I will withdrawal from Iraq immediately’ and opting out of public funds. and a host of other stumbles and avoided questions do is call into question the whole hopeyness and changitude narrative.

    He may have very keen political instincts, but when left to his own devices, he sure doesn’t display them.