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If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, Barack Obama is the Great Deceiver. Time and again, from the beginning of his presidential campaign until today, Obama has taken a strong stand on an issue only to reverse himself.
Obama has more power than any modern president to enact his agenda. His party has control of the House of Representatives and an almost-filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. And yet he chooses to disregard his promises.
The contrast between Obama and his predecessor is stark. President George W. Bush promised to deliver an across-the-board tax cut, education reform, and prescription drugs for seniors. He doggedly pursued these objectives and used his Republican majority to hammer through legislation.
Even when he faced long political odds because of opposition from his own party, he poured resources and personal effort into doomed attempts to deliver on campaign promises such as reforming Social Security.
Does anyone, even Obama, now remember what he promised during the campaign? The conservative story-line explaining all of the flip-flops is that Obama campaigned as a moderate but is governing as a radical left-winger. The truth is more puzzling than that. Fact is, the far left is seething too. And seething for a good reason: Obama has broken many of his promises to the left as well.
Take the shift on the North American Free Trade Agreement.
During the campaign, Obama pandered to anti-trade union members by attacking free trade with gusto. “I will make sure we renegotiate” NAFTA, Obama promised shortly before the Ohio primary. “I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage.” Obama the campaigner also used “devastating” and “a big mistake” to describe NAFTA.
Then last month, U.S. Trade Representative Ronald Kirk announced that Obama had discussed NAFTA with the Mexican president and “they don’t believe we have to reopen the agreement now.”
There are many examples of similar reversals that vex the left.
Obama decided to continue to use military tribunals to prosecute terrorists after criticizing their use while on the campaign trail.
He spoke movingly as a candidate about the need to overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military, but has failed to act as president. He has refused to intervene as gays in the military, such as National Guardsman Dan Choi, have been expelled from the military after revealing their sexual orientation. One presumes that members of the armed services have been outing themselves because they believed that they had a commander-in-chief who is sensitive to their cause.
Warming to Bill
On climate change, Obama once argued that all carbon permits issued in a “cap-and-trade” system must be auctioned off. Now, much to the dismay of Greenpeace and other environmental groups, the administration is signaling a willingness to support the current House bill that hands most of the permits out for free, mostly to big polluters.
On health care, candidate Obama ridiculed John McCain’s proposal to fund health insurance for the uninsured by reducing the tax preferences that induce employers to provide gold-plated plans. Obama’s rhetoric could hardly have been more damning. He said McCain’s approach was “radical,” “out of touch” and “out of line with our basic values.”
Now that Obama himself is seeking to reform health care, he needs to pursue McCain’s approach because he needs the money. Taxing health benefits “most firmly should remain on the table,” Peter Orszag, Obama’s budget director, said at a congressional hearing.
That’s right–something that a few months ago was radical and out of line with our basic values now most firmly should be on the table.
So what’s going on here?
A pattern has been established. Obama seems to be a politician who has made the calculation that he can’t acquire political power without pandering to the far left. But he also recognizes that he can’t keep political power if he actually pursues the left’s policies. He can talk a good game at an activist meeting, but in the end, he is smart enough to know what could irretrievably harm the country.
So he drops renegotiating NAFTA and allows the so-called card-check legislation–which would let unions do away with secret-ballet workplace elections–wither on the vine in the Senate.
When the issue is less visible, and his talk more moderate, he stealthily throws bones in the left’s direction. He pushed billions toward the unions in the auto bailouts. He allows a tax hike, such as the one contemplated for health care, to proceed even though he opposed it in the past.
When the talk is moderate, the actions are liberal. When the talk is liberal, the actions are moderate.
That might be good short-term politics, but at some point, voters are going to notice the deception.
Kevin A. Hassett is a senior fellow and the director of economic policy studies at AEI.
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