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Obama & the Burden of Liberalism

By Kimberley Strassel

"If you want conventional Washington thinking, I'm not your man. If you want rigid ideology, I'm not your man. If you think that fundamental change can wait, I'm definitely not your man. But if you want to bring this country together . . . then I offer a different choice in this race and a different vision for our future."

-- Barack Obama, DePaul University, Oct. 2

Ask an Obama supporter what they love about the presidential contender, and some version of this pitch is what you'll hear. Mr. Obama can "heal divisions," can "win hearts and minds." He's going to change the way crummy old Washington does business, get past this red-versus-blue thing, and get on with being president of one truly United States of America.

If the Democratic race has been about anything, it's been about promises of "change." Mr. Obama has made it his signature issue, tapping into a national unease with the status quo, and riding it to within striking distance of Hillary Clinton. What the charismatic young Illinois senator has not yet had to do is explain what shape this change will assume, or how he intends to bring it about. And lucky for him, because it's far from clear Mr. Obama is anything but same old, same old.

Mrs. Clinton has also been laboring for "change," though she's kept the focus on Republicans. Her strategy has been to minimize divisions among the Democrats, presenting herself as their natural leader. She's also had an eye to the general election prize, where she hopes talk of George W. Bush's failings will hold appeal for independents, and some Republicans, unhappy with the eight years of GOP rule.

But it's been Mr. Obama's more sweeping message that has captured public attention. He's seen Mrs. Clinton's bet (to change which party runs the White House) and raised her (by promising to change the entire political calculus). That goes down well not only with anti-Bush partisans, but paradoxically with voters who complain about too much "partisanship" in Washington. As a bonus, it allows Mr. Obama to hit Mrs. Clinton where it hurts, namely voter fear that she'd be a return to 1990s battles.

The message is so strong that it has, remarkably, allowed Mr. Obama to so far weather his biggest weakness: lack of experience, especially on foreign policy. Everyone likes a fresh face, but voters have a way of trusting in the old, familiar ones in times of danger. Mrs. Clinton knows this, and has pounded Mr. Obama on his ability to protect us against terror. And yet Mr. Obama trundles along with his promise of a new political era.

What exactly is that new era? Washington is gridlocked in part because congressional Democrats have attempted to govern with an agenda that is too liberal even for many in their own party. Mr. Obama is captivating, though probably not captivating enough to convince Republican rivals to sign up for Nancy Pelosi's game plan. His only real tool for changing Washington presumably rests in convincing his own party to move toward a more innovative middle. Yet nothing in Mr. Obama's history, or current campaign, suggests he intends to forge a new Democratic direction.

As a candidate, Bill Clinton recognized Democrats' national image problems, and ran on a message of "opportunity, responsibility, community." President Bill Clinton abandoned most of that within his first 100 days, caving to liberals. But it remains the case that his signature policy achievements--welfare reform and trade--were the result of his ability to shift Democrats toward the center. When Mr. Obama was last heard talking about trade, it was to complain that Americans had lost their jobs for "a cheaper T-shirt" and to promise to "amend" Mr. Clinton's Nafta with stricter labor agreements.

This is no Joe Lieberman, who seeks to keep his party from jumping off a foreign policy cliff. Mr. Obama criticizes any Democrat who supported the Iraq war. This is no Daniel Moynihan, who favored private Social Security accounts as a means of alleviating wealth inequality. In 2005, Mr. Obama suggested private accounts were a form of "social Darwinism." This is no former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, who wanted to transform Medicare into a system that would help seniors buy insurance on the private market. Mr. Obama has blasted Medicare Advantage, and boasts of his votes to pour more money into today's failing government-run system.

As for Mr. Obama's claim he is no slave to "rigid ideology," consider his voting record. National Journal in March released its 2006 annual rankings of Congress based on key roll call votes, and Mr. Obama was found to be more liberal than 86% of his senatorial colleagues. To the extent he's teamed up with Republicans, it has been on issues popular with the electorate, say, more government transparency. Back in 2005, when a bipartisan group of 14 senators agreed not to filibuster President Bush's judicial nominees, Mr. Obama's name was notably not on the list.

Mr. Obama has offered reforms. He has proposed requiring employers to enroll workers in retirement accounts; he has suggested linking teacher pay to performance; and he has agreed that health-care reform should include insurance and drug companies. But he's already backtracked in the face of interest group opposition, telling school union members that pay shouldn't be linked to test scores. Much of his American Dream agenda--refundable tax credits for college tuition, more after-school programs, annual minimum wage hikes--is an extension of the increasingly standard Democratic play off "income inequality," and would result in a bigger federal government. Most would also be paid for by rolling back the Bush tax cuts. Tax and spend; this is pretty standard Democratic stuff.

So what is his plan? He may have let it slip in a recent interview, when he explained that a big reason he should be the Democratic nominee is that he could carry his party to a sweeping congressional victory that would provide a "mandate for change." "I mean, if we have a 50-plus-one election, we cannot get a serious health-care bill done. We can't have a serious agenda on climate change," he said.

That doesn't sound like a man who wants to work with Republicans toward a bipartisan era. It sounds like a man who wants to crush his opponents at the polls, and then bulldoze his agenda through an enfeebled opposition. There isn't anything necessarily wrong with that; it's what politicians have been trying to do for decades. But it's certainly nothing new.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

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