Flip-Flops and Governance
Our president isn't quite as advertised.
By KARL ROVE
Barack Obama inherited a set of national-security policies that he rejected during the campaign but now embraces as president. This is a stunning and welcome about-face.
For example, President Obama kept George W. Bush's military tribunals for terror detainees after calling them an "enormous failure" and a "legal black hole." His campaign claimed last summer that "court systems . . . are capable of convicting terrorists." Upon entering office, he found out they aren't.
He insisted in an interview with NBC in 2007 that Congress mandate "consequences" for "a failure to meet various benchmarks and milestones" on aid to Iraq. Earlier this month he fought off legislatively mandated benchmarks in the $97 billion funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama agreed on April 23 to American Civil Liberties Union demands to release investigative photos of detainee abuse. Now's he reversed himself. Pentagon officials apparently convinced him that releasing the photos would increase the risk to U.S. troops and civilian personnel.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama excoriated Mr. Bush's counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, insisting it could not succeed. Earlier this year, facing increasing violence in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama rejected warnings of a "quagmire" and ordered more troops to that country. He isn't calling it a "surge" but that's what it is. He is applying in Afghanistan the counterinsurgency strategy Mr. Bush used in Iraq.
As a candidate, Mr. Obama promised to end the Iraq war by withdrawing all troops by March 2009. As president, he set a slower pace of drawdown. He has also said he will leave as many as 50,000 Americans troops there.
These reversals are both praiseworthy and evidence that, when it comes to national security, being briefed on terror threats as president is a lot different than placating MoveOn.org and Code Pink activists as a candidate. The realities of governing trump the realities of campaigning.
We are also seeing Mr. Obama reverse himself on the domestic front, but this time in a manner that will do more harm than good.
Mr. Obama campaigned on "responsible fiscal policies," arguing in a speech on the Senate floor in 2006 that the "rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy." In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he pledged to "go through the federal budget line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work." Even now, he says he'll "cut the deficit . . . by half by the end of his first term in office" and is "rooting out waste and abuse" in the budget.
However, Mr. Obama's fiscally conservative words are betrayed by his liberal actions. He offers an orgy of spending and a bacchanal of debt. His budget plans a 25% increase in the federal government's share of the GDP, a doubling of the national debt in five years, and a near tripling of it in 10 years.
On health care, Mr. Obama's election ads decried "government-run health care" as "extreme," saying it would lead to "higher costs." Now he is promoting a plan that would result in a de facto government-run health-care system. Even the Washington Post questions it, saying, "It is difficult to imagine . . . benefits from a government-run system."
Making adjustments in office is one thing. Constantly governing in direct opposition to what you said as a candidate is something else. Mr. Obama's flip-flops on national security have been wise; on the domestic front, they have been harmful.
In both cases, though, we have learned something about Mr. Obama. What animated him during the campaign is what historian Forrest McDonald once called "the projection of appealing images." All politicians want to project an appealing image. What Mr. McDonald warned against is focusing on this so much that an appealing image "becomes a self-sustaining end unto itself." Such an approach can work in a campaign, as Mr. Obama discovered. But it can also complicate life once elected, as he is finding out.
Mr. Obama's appealing campaign images turned out to have been fleeting. He ran hard to the left on national security to win the nomination, only to discover the campaign commitments he made were shallow and at odds with America's security interests.
Mr. Obama ran hard to the center on economic issues to win the general election. He has since discovered his campaign commitments were obstacles to ramming through the most ideologically liberal economic agenda since the Great Society.
Mr. Obama either had very little grasp of what governing would involve or, if he did, he used words meant to mislead the public. Neither option is particularly encouraging. America now has a president quite different from the person who advertised himself for the job last year. Over time, those things can catch up to a politician.
Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.