Dominic Lawson: Meet the new Obama, master of the U-turn

Some of those most captivated by the Democrat candidate are now feeling distinctly queasy

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"I find comfort in the fact that the longer I'm in politics the less nourishing popularity becomes, that a striving for rank and fame seems to betray a poverty of ambition, and that I am answerable mainly to the steady gaze of my own conscience."

Thus spake Barack Obama. These words appear at the conclusion of the chapter entitled "Politics" in Obama's 2006 book The Audacity of Hope. They also sum up much of what we now know about Obama: a man of stunning articulacy, but also stunning self-regard.

Both characteristics have been indispensable in powering the first-term Illinois senator to the very brink of the presidency. Now, however, some of those who were most captivated by Obama's perorations about his unflinching conscience are feeling distinctly queasy: in the brief weeks since forcing Hillary Clinton to concede, he has made them wonder what, actually, distinguishes his politics from those of the Clintons at their most ruthlessly pragmatic.

Within days of the end of the primary campaign, Obama pledged to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that he would ensure that Jerusalem would remain "the undivided capital of Israel". Even George Bush had never made such a commitment, so Obama's remarks were criticised not just by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but by the State Department itself, as prejudging complex negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama, however, had achieved his domestic objective – he could no longer be labelled by the Republicans as "anti-Israel".

Then, on 19 June, Obama declared that he would opt out of the regulated public campaign financing system, becoming the first presidential candidate since Richard Nixon to choose to raise unlimited private funds, instead. The reason is obvious: he is now raising vastly more than the Republican John McCain, who is committed to taking public funds. The trouble is that Obama had pledged, in writing, that he would remain within the public system, if his opponent did so.

As I say, it's an understandable volte-face: but equally understandable is the reaction of McCain's spokesman: "What's becoming clear in this campaign is that for Senator Obama the most important issue in the election is the political fortunes of Senator Obama. He has demonstrated that there really is no position he holds that isn't subject to change depending on how he calculates it will affect his political fortunes."

Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? Except that now some Democrats are saying the same thing, after Obama reneged on another promise, over a matter of genuine constitutional substance. During the long-drawn-out Democrat primary campaign, Obama had constantly reiterated his opposition to President Bush's plans to give retroactive immunity from prosecution to telecommunications companies who assist the government with warrantless wiretaps. This measure was passionately opposed by many Democrats as a clear infringement of the fourth amendment to the Constitution. Last week, Obama reversed his long-held position. Again, the political motivation is clear enough.

One of the few areas in which McCain has a significant poll lead over Obama is that described as "the war against terror". Doubtless, had Obama not performed this sinuous U-turn, then the Republicans would have used his opposition to Bush's legislation as a way of driving home the point. The unresolved issue, however, is this: did Barack Obama really believe the measure was unconstitutional when he opposed it? And if so, is everything negotiable?

Most recently of all, Obama, who up until now had openly backed the strict handgun ban in Washington DC, last week declared his support for a 5 to 4 Supreme Court ruling which overturned the restrictions. Even though his own hometown mayor, Chicago's Richard Daley, and the Los Angeles police chief William Bratton, both criticised the ruling, Obama flip-flopped once more, saying that the judgment "reinforces that if we act responsibly we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe."

Once again, Obama's 180-degree turn is eminently understandable, from an electoral point of view. There are more than 280 million privately owned firearms in the United States and almost half of American households own at least one such weapon. That was why John Kerry, during the last US presidential election, invited the cameras to film him (looking slightly ridiculous) shooting ducks. For Barack Obama, this had become a particular point of weakness, after his unfortunate taped remarks to a dinner of sophisticated San Francisco Democrats about "bitter" Americans who "cling to guns or religion ... as a way to explain their frustrations."

On the other hand, last week Barack Obama also took issue with a different judgment by the Supreme Court, which had struck down the State of Louisiana's law authorising the death penalty for the rape of a child. Obama, who as Illinois senator had opposed the death penalty for gang murders, now explained that he believes Louisiana's death penalty for a crime short of murder "is at least potentially applicable and does not violate our constitution".

It is fascinating, in the light of this particular manoeuvre, to turn again to The Audacity of Hope, and in particular the passage in which Obama describes as "frighteningly cold-hearted" Bill Clinton's decision to "allow the execution of a mentally retarded death row inmate to go forward on the eve of an important primary."

Those in the Democrat party who supported Hillary Clinton's campaign seem to be taking a certain bleak pleasure in Obama's recent triangulations – or rather headlong plunge into Republican territory. One such is the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who put the knife in most elegantly: "Progressive activists during the Democratic primary... convinced themselves that Obama was a transformational figure behind a centrist facade. They may have had it backward."

Those who actually supported Obama during this process now divide neatly, if unevenly, into two groups. The first, smaller, group is full of buyer's remorse. The blogosphere is hissing like a catherine wheel with their anger with Obama, obviously, but above all with themselves. The second, much bigger group, continues to buy Obama's story. They argue that everything and anything is justified if it helps to get a Democrat back in the White House; some of them add that "of course" Obama doesn't believe any of the things he is now saying to woo the "redneck states" and that once in the White House he will revert to his "true beliefs".

To this group we must address a simple question. How do you know what Obama really believes in, other than his own destiny – and, of course, his conscience?

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