Is Obama different?

The President is playing the political games he was supposed to be above.

By Matt Barnum

“I’ve been poring over press clippings from Obama’s past, looking for inconsistencies and flip-flops. There are virtually none,” gushed David Brooks, U of C alum and New York Times columnist, in a December 2007 column. If Brooks were to write the column today, though, he’d have a lot more press clippings to pore over, and a lot more flip-flops to dissect.

Obama’s record on free trade is a case study in a politician’s pandering to special interests despite knowing better. While campaigning in Ohio, a bastion of unions and protectionists, Obama proclaimed NAFTA was “devastating” and “a big mistake;” but when the primary was over, he tacked toward the middle, admitting that “sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified.”

The real question is what Obama genuinely believes. People say a lot of things about him, but nobody’s ever accused him of being dumb. That’s why it would be astonishing if he were truly against free trade. The economic consensus is clear: More than 80 percent of economists in a recent American Economist Association survey supported removing barriers to free trade. Many of Obama’s top economic advisors—like Larry Summers, Austan Goolsbee, and Jason Furman—are outspoken supporters of free trade. And yet, we still have to deal with Obama’s implementation of a tariff on Chinese tire imports.

Then there’s campaign finance reform. Obama and John McCain promised at the beginning of their presidential campaigns that each would accept public funds if they were their parties’ respective nominees. Yet lo and behold, Obama broke that pledge because it was politically inconvenient. Obama claimed that he was leveling the playing field against evil Republican 527 groups—in other words, two wrongs made a right. (This assertion turned out to be false, as 527s played a negligible part in the election.) Obama had the chance to prove that he was truly a politician of a different stripe, one willing to stand on principle for a system he had claimed to support; instead, he chose what every politician chooses: self-interest.

When I ask Obama supporters about his opposition to gay marriage, almost without exception they blithely reply, “He’s not really against it.” I’m inclined to agree with that. Obama opposed Proposition 8, the ballot initiative in California that banned gay marriage. How can someone who is against gay marriage also oppose a measure like Prop 8? It’s not a states’ rights issue, which is one argument that opponents of gay marriage make while opposing a Constitutional amendment banning the practice. It’s a straightforward vote for any real opponent of same-sex marriage. It’s impossible to reconcile Obama’s opposition to Prop 8 and his stated opposition to gay marriage.

It appears that Obama genuinely supports gay marriage, but believes it’s too politically risky to do so publicly. So he states his theoretical opposition to the practice, but when practical legislation comes through that would restrict same-sex marriage, he’s against it.

What’s depressing is that his calculation was probably wrong. There’s little question in my mind that Obama could still be president, even if he had supported gay marriage. In fact, he likely would have had an easier time winning the Democratic primary; in the general election, it’s hard to imagine same-sex marriage becoming a major issue in the campaign with the economy’s collapse.

But Obama chose to be risk-averse—no viable presidential candidate has ever supported gay marriage—rather than take a chance. That’s understandable; politicians make these calculations as a matter of course. What it shows, though, is that Obama is a politician, just like the rest.

And yet, I believe Obama really is different—smarter, more intellectually honest, more thoughtful—which is why I find his willingness to play the usual political games so discouraging. George Bush’s excuse was that he wasn’t all that smart. What’s Obama’s?

Matt Barnum is a fourth-year in the College majoring in psychology. He is a member of the Maroon Editorial Board.