JFK was known to waffle and flip-flop, most notably at the Bay of Pigs when he promised then withheld air support from Cuban exiles who mounted a 1961 attack on Castro's forces in southwest Cuba. But his word was generally his bond. He certainly never approached Barack Obama's remarkable streak of policy changes and "clarifications."
A February 25 Washington Post article outlined five Obama flip-flops that have already been eclipsed by mightier and more recent tergiversations.
The five listed by the Post were:
1. Campaign contributions from unions. In January, the Obama campaign described union contributions to the Edwards and Clinton campaigns as "special interest" money. Then as unions began to endorse him, he began referring to them as representatives of "working people" whose support he was "thrilled" to receive.
2. Public financing of campaigns. Just this past September, Obama said he would agree to public financing of the 2008 presidential election if the GOP nominee does likewise. By February, it was clear that Obama's fundraising juggernaut would outperform any Republican counterpart by multiples.
His spokesman weaseled that Obama had never actually committed to public financing. (Shades of "no controlling legal authority.") Obama himself added several new conditions before he would honor his agreement to submit to public financing, including the impossible demand for regulation of outside groups. Recently he reneged altogether, rationalizing that the system of public financing of elections is "broken."
It was transparently self-serving and, I would argue, excusable in terms of sheer self-interest. But true to form, Obama admitted no fault and instead used the announcement as an occasion to accuse Republicans prospectively of (future) attack ads. The best defense is a good offense.
3. The Cuba embargo. In remarks at Southern Illinois University in 2004, he said it was time "to end the embargo with Cuba" because it had "utterly failed in the attempt to overthrow Castro." But in August 2007, speaking this time to a Cuban-American group in vote-rich Miami, he said he would not "take off the embargo" because it is "an important inducement for change."
Since then, he has revised his position again, to permit unrestricted travel to Cuba, and to allow a free flow of financial remittances from Cubans in the U.S. back to Cuba.
4. Illegal immigration. In a March 2004 questionnaire, Obama reported that he would "oppose" government efforts to "crack down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants." But under working class pressure from the Edwards and Clinton constituencies this past January, he said in a televised debate that "we do have to crack down on those employers that are taking advantage of the situation."
5. Legalizing marijuana. While running for the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama told college students that he supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use. In an October presidential debate, he joined other Democratic candidates in opposing the decriminalization of marijuana.
As the Washington Times wryly commented a month before the Post ran its piece, " Barack Obama, the senatorial candidate of 2004, might have a bone to pick with Barack Obama, the presidential candidate of 2008."
Intellectually, Bringing a Knife to a Gun Fight
The Washington Post article was in no way exhaustive, as Obama has reversed himself on a number of issues, including health care for illegal immigrants, Jeremiah Wright, and the severity of the geo-political threats posed by Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.
" I mean, think about it," he coaxed an adoring crowd in Oregon last month.
"Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us, you know, Iran, they spend one one-hundredth of what we spend on the military. If Iran ever tried to pose a serious threat to us, they wouldn't stand a chance."
Conservative critics began to get traction that Obama is a lightweight in foreign policy and geopolitics, out of his depth and a menace to the troops he would command and the economy he would shepherd. Just one day after his gaffe, he "clarified" in Montana.
"Iran is a grave threat. It has an illicit nuclear program. It supports terrorism across the region and militias in Iraq. It threatens Israel's existence. It denies the Holocaust...." Alrighty, then.
"When is Iran a threat to the US and when is it not? As far as Barack Obama is concerned," quipped British blogger Alex Spillius, "the answer can vary within 24 hours."
Second term of Jimmy Carter?
"From the beginning, Barack Obama's special appeal was his vow to remain an idealistic outsider, courageous and optimistic, and never to shift his positions for political expediency, or become a captive of the Inside-the-Beltway intelligentsia, or kiss up to special interests and big money donors," wrote Margaret Talev of McClatchy's Washington bureau Thursday.
"In recent weeks, though, Obama has done all those things.
"He abandoned public campaign financing after years of championing it. Backed a compromise on wiretap legislation that gives telecom companies retroactive immunity for helping the government conduct spying without warrants. Dumped his controversial pastor of two decades — then his church — after saying he could no more abandon the pastor than abandon his own grandmother.
"He said he wouldn't wear the U.S. flag pin because it had become a substitute for true patriotism, then started wearing it. Ramped up his courtship of unions. Shifted from a pledge to protect working-class families from tax increases to a far more expensive promise not to raise taxes on families that earn up to $250,000 a year. Turned to longtime D.C. Democratic wise men to run his vice-presidential search and staff his foreign-policy brain trust.
"Presidential candidates often tack toward the center after securing their party's nominations. But all this tactical repositioning by Obama suggests that he's a more complex, pragmatic and arguably more opportunistic politician than the fresh face of "change we can believe in" that he presented during the primary season."
Obama is not the only revisionist in the campaign. Presumptive G.O.P. nominee John McCain has changed his positions on tax cuts, amnesty for illegal immigrants and offshore oil drilling. But Obama's pretension as a uniquely principled man of granitic integrity, a man who transcends the squalid politics of mere mortals, imparts a fragrance of hypocrisy to his agile pragmatism.
Yet Obama's support is sturdy, not issue-based. This is because so many of his followers are otherwise apolitical, and fairly contemptuous of conventional civic engagement. They are more enamored with the idea of Obama than with the actual man standing before them. He is a battle shield against the accountability and moralism of the Christian Right.
"My support is still strong," said Obama supporter David Christie, 20, in Talev's piece. "And I don't think folks my age will turn on him if he keeps doing things like that. Folks my age are excited, and that's not going to die because of a couple of decisions."
And for battle-hardened Democratic foot-soldiers, hungry after eight years out of office, hypocrisy and duplicity are a small price to pay for a return to happy days of free-flowing patronage.
"Rejecting public financing does seem kind of cynical," said Democratic legislator Ellen Nielsen of New Hampshire, "but for someone who wants to be president, if you aspire to that job I guess you have to do it. I don't expect him to be a moral paragon. You don't get to where he is if you are."