Ruth Marcus: Obama the liberal radical? That's a myth

  • Article by: RUTH MARCUS
  • Updated: March 10, 2009 - 7:11 PM

When he's diverged from campaign promises, it has been to the right.

WASHINGTON - The notion that President Obama has lurched to the left since his inauguration and is governing as an unreconstructed liberal is bunk. Obama's presidential agenda mirrors his campaign platform. He has diverged from it in a few areas -- almost entirely to the right.

Let's review:

On the war in Iraq, Obama has, wisely, stepped back from his brigade-a-month withdrawal plan and stretched his 16-month departure timetable to 19 months. It turns out that the residual force Obama discussed, sketchily, during the campaign will total 50,000 troops.

A "broken promise ... more like occupation-lite," charged the antiwar group Code Pink.

On the legal issues entwined in the war on terror, Obama is, again wisely, proceeding more slowly than many civil libertarians demand. Guantanamo will be closed -- eventually. Military commissions have been halted, torture policies renounced and secret memoranda released.

Yet the Obama Justice Department backstopped the Bush Justice Department's assertion of the state secrets privilege to block lawsuits challenging wiretapping and extraordinary rendition. The administration argued that prisoners in Afghanistan cannot challenge their detention in court. It leaned on the British government to keep evidence of alleged torture secret.

"Hope is flickering," lamented American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero.

On contentious social issues, Obama has proceeded largely as promised during the campaign -- again, with caution. He reversed Bush administration policies on family-planning funds and stem-cell research. In his education speech Tuesday, Obama not only reiterated his campaign endorsement of merit pay for teachers "for improved student achievement," he called on states to lift caps on the number of charter schools. Obama has said he backs a controversial measure to make union organizing easier, but shown no zeal for having the legislation brought up.

Likewise, in continuing the Bush White House office of faith-based initiatives, Obama retrenched from his stance that groups receiving federal funding cannot discriminate in hiring. Instead, such issues will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

"I am very disappointed," proclaimed Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Yes, you say, but what about the main event: the economy? Obama's centrist personnel choices -- Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag -- have been followed by centrist policy. Indeed, Obama has moved in a more moderate direction than his campaign had pledged.

His foolhardy promise to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans has now been linked to obtaining the revenue from his cap-and-trade emissions program. On health care, the president now wants his plan fully paid for with new taxes or spending cuts.

The predictable yelping about Obama piling tax increases on the wealthy ignores that he outlined precisely this during the campaign. The one additional increase is his proposal to limit the value of tax deductions for the richest taxpayers. This was not just dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. It expired in transit.

Still, given the need to focus attention and political capital on the economy, is Obama taking on too much by pursuing the full campaign menu?

Maybe, but there's no harm in setting out priorities. Assuming that the economic crisis precludes doing anything else guarantees nothing else will get done. Aside from the economy, Obama's real focus this year is health-care reform. Even this may be biting off too much. But it's a reasonable judgment that health care is a moral and economic imperative worth the try.

The most legitimate criticism of Obama is that his vision of shared sacrifice hasn't involved much sharing, and the hard choices he talks about remain to be made. It's an open question whether he's got the spine to stand up to congressional leaders.

And if President Obama, much like candidate Obama, has found it hard to "put an end to the politics that would divide a nation" -- well, some of us never considered that a change we much believed in.

Ruth Marcus' column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.

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