What does Barack Obama really believe?

By Megan McArdle

Apparently, someone leaked an Obama political questionnaire from 1996 to the Politico:

The questionnaire, which was provided to Politico with assistance from political sources opposed to Obama’s presidential campaign, raises questions of whether Obama can be painted as too liberal and whether he is insufficiently consistent.

A week after Politico provided the questionnaire to the Obama campaign for comment, an aide called Monday night to say that Obama had said he did not fill out the form, and provided a contact for his campaign manager at the time, who said she filled it out. It includes first-person comments such as: “I have not previously been a candidate.”

The campaign said his views have been consistent, and points out that his positions have always been more nuanced than can be conveyed in yes-or-no answers.



Ezra Klein retorts:


According to The Politico, these "liberal views could haunt Obama." Yes, particularly if major media outlets bring them up as documents worth taking seriously, rather than dismissing them as a pandering document published in the year of the Macarena. Say what you will about Obama, but with two books to his name and a speaking style that trends towards the endless, the guy hasn't given us an insufficient quantity of contemporary guidance as to his opinions, judgments, and qualms about public policy issues. It's true that, if the media wants to haunt him with old documents simplifying policy positions from a decade ago, they can. But don't use the passive voice. Let's not pretend someone wearing a sheet is a real live ghost.



The "too liberal" views in the questionnaire are support for a gun ban, support for a universal health care system, and opposition to the death penalty. For my part, I'd always assumed that these were Obama's views on the subject. Now I am pondering: are there really people out there who believe that a candidate's policy papers are what they would actually hammer out if they weren't running for office, and had simply been given the task of designing the system they thought would be best for the country?

I'm not even sure how much it matters what a candidate's real views are. Barak Obama probably believes, in his heart of hearts, that the death penalty should be abolished, and I agree with him. But the president doesn't really have any authority over the death penalty, and even if he did, strong public support for executions would almost certainly keep him from doing anything about it. Likewise, while I'm sure he wants to ban guns, Democrats have learned their lesson from Al Gore too well to consider doing much about it.

Health care is a different story, and there his views worry me--but they worried me before I knew he'd advocated a single-payer system back in 1996. His current healthcare plan is a pretty clear signal of the direction he wants to take the country's medical system in. Because whatever his true beliefs, if he campaigns on his current health care plan, and wins on his current health care plan, he's probably going to try to stick pretty close to his current health care plan. In politics, above all else, you go with what brung you to the dance.

Mostly, the reaction to this seems pretty tribal: we're not judging what he'll do, but "is he like me?" To be sure, that might be useful in assessing what he's like to do about all the policy problems we don't even know about yet--but not that useful, because who would have predicted Clintonian welfare reform or Bush's Medicare prescription drug benefit? Anyway, I really can't spend a lot of time wondering whether politicians share, deep down, my core values. The number of politicians who agree with me on any major policy question can be counted on the toes of one hand.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2007/12/what-does-barack-obama-really-believe/2367/