Obama the pragmatist

Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the 2008 American presidential election, has eased into a predictable campaign mode followed by the party’s standard-bearers in the past. After clinching the nomination by rallying the ‘left’-liberal wing of the party, he is trying to woo uncommitted voters by adopting more conservative positions on various issues. This shift has not gone down well with sections of the party fired up with enthusiasm for the seemingly radical nature of the Obama candidacy. These sections have expressed their principled disapproval of the changes in approach to issues such as campaign finance reform, wire-tapping, and keeping religion separate from politics. Mr. Obama has offered explanations, or rather rationalisations, for his apparent flip-flops. The Illinois Senator, a supporter of campaign finance reform, insists he cannot accept limitations on fund-raising because he might be outspent by Republican-affiliated advocacy groups. (U.S. election law does not impose caps on funds raised and spent by advocacy groups.) Mr. Obama has also defended his vote in favour of a bill that included provisions for the grant of retroactive immunity to telephone companies accused of involvement in wire-tapping. He says this compromise was necessary to save a piece of legislation that was constructive in its overall thrust. As for his proposal to channel development funds through religious organisations, his defence is that the money will be granted only for secular purposes.

While the complaints of flip-flopping have not subsided, some commentators believe disgruntled sections of the Democratic Party failed to read the fine print. From the beginning, Mr. Obama has maintained that he would try to lead the country towards a bipartisan consensus on various issues by emphasising pragmatism over ideology. Movement towards the ‘centre’ is political pragmatism because the idea is to attract uncommitted voters who can tilt the balance in an electorate that is otherwise more or less evenly divided between the two parties. The tactical shifts might have taken some of the sheen off Mr. Obama as an agent of change but are unlikely to hurt his chances of making it to the White House. The left-liberal sections of the electorate have no better candidate while the centrists have a less unpalatable choice. The presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, whose track record might have held appeal for centrist voters, has not really been able to address them because he is still stuck in the process of consolidating his position in the Republican Party’s far-Right and conservative base.

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