His suggestion last week that he was continuing to "refine" his position on the war was the latest in a series of shifts on a variety of issues which have befuddled and angered his political base. Thousands of his own supporters launched a protest on the official Obama Web site after he announced his support for the Senate compromise on FISA, for example. And conservatives have crowed about his seeming support for Supreme Court decisions on gun control and the death penalty that put him in the same camp as Justice Scalia.
Most of those semi-minor shifts could be forgiven by Democratic activists smelling a November victory in the air as attempts to solidify his position among centrists and inoculate his candidacy against the Republican attacks to come. But not when it comes to the war in Iraq. That's an issue on which progressive activists have little wiggle room.
In 2006, Democratic candidates rode a wave of anti-war sentiment to a Majority in the House, ending nearly six years of Republican rule in government. Hopes were high among those who had organized, blogged and raised money for candidates whose primary goal was to bring the war to an end by any means necessary.
For their efforts, anti-war activists were rewarded not with a reduction of the war in Iraq but an escalation. Democratic leaders have at times talked tough about ending the conflict but have made no serious effort to cut funding or force a change in the administration's overall policy. Now the party's presidential candidate, who reminded primary voters at every turn that he had opposed the war from the beginning and would end it within 16 months of taking office, seemed to be backing away.
That could be a fudge too far. Obama is in a delicate position on Iraq as he plans a trip there this summer. If he doesn't talk to military leaders on the ground and at least appear to be open minded, what's the point of going there at all? He has in the past said that as president, he would dictate the broad strategic goals, leading to the assumption that he would have very little use of his general's assessments of how the war is going. He's also up against the reality that even if he insists on an end to the war, it may take longer than 16 months to get there.
Nevertheless, it's an issue that lies at the heart of Obama's candidacy. He argued in the primaries that judgment, not experience, is the key to leadership. Looking at his forceful push-back on the Iraq issue and charges of flip-flops, he may have slightly misjudged how little wiggle room there is on the war.
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