Barack Obama has taken a stroll this week away from traditional liberal political positions, his path toward the political center marked by artful leaps and turns.
On Thursday, he seemed to embrace a Supreme Court decision, written by the court’s premiere conservative and upheld 5-4, striking down Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns.
Obama seemed to voice support for the ban as recently as February. On Thursday, however, he issued a Delphic news release that seemed to support the Supreme Court, although staff members later insisted that might not be the case.
"I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures," Obama said. "The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view."
He added, "Today’s decision reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe."
In the last week, Obama has taken calibrated positions on issues that include electronic surveillance, campaign finance and the death penalty for child rapists, suggesting a presidential candidate in hot pursuit of what Bill Clinton once lovingly described as "the vital center."
"A presidential candidate’s great desire is to be seen as pragmatic, and they hope their maneuvering and shifting will be seen in pursuit of some higher purpose," said Robert Dallek, the presidential historian. "It doesn’t mean they are utterly insincere."
George W. Bush, too, maneuvered toward the political center in 2000 presidential campaign, convincing many that he might rule in the moderately conservative tradition of his father. And Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, shifted several positions in the Republican primary, taking conservative lines on taxes and immigration.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for generations a liberal Democratic lode star, was no easier to define. He slipped and slid his way through the 1932 election. "Herbert Hoover called him a 'chameleon on plaid,'" Dallek said.
Obama has executed several policy pirouettes in recent weeks, each time landing more toward the center of the political ring. On Wednesday in Chicago, he confirmed that he would not fight a revised law that would extend retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government spy on American citizens. (He had previously spoken against immunity provisions in an earlier version of the bill.) And recently he backed away from his own earlier support for campaign finance spending limits in the 2008 election.
Obama describes his new turns as consistent with long-held beliefs. On Wednesday he painted his decision to opt out of the campaign finance system as a reformist gesture, noting that most of his donors are not wealthy. "Our donor base is the American people," he said, adding that this was the thematic goal of campaign finance reform.
This most observant of politicians has throughout his career shown an appreciation for the virtues of political ambiguity. In February, a local television anchor asked Obama to explain his support of the Washington gun ban. The candidate, a transcript shows, did not object to that characterization of his position, even as he said he favored the Second Amendment and supports law-abiding people who use guns for sport and protection. "And so I think there is nothing wrong with a community saying we are going to take those illegal handguns off the streets, we are going to trace more effectively how these guns are ending up on the streets, to unscrupulous gun dealers, who often times are selling to straw purchasers," he said.
In South Carolina this year, Obama lent his voice to the battle against the Bush administration’s program of wiretaps without warrants. "This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security he demands," he said in South Carolina earlier this year.
The bill since has been modified, with internal safeguards put in place on wiretaps without warrants. This has not pleased Obama’s Democratic allies on the Hill; Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, strongly oppose the bill.
But Obama indicated on Wednesday he probably would vote for it. "The issue of the phone companies per se is not one that overrides the security of the American people," he said.
On the death penalty, Obama wrote in his memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," (Crown, 2007), that the penalty "does little to deter crime." But he added that society has the right to express outrage at heinous crimes. During his 2004 Senate campaign, he publicly supported the death penalty, even as he called the justice system flawed and urged a moratorium on executions.
Obama is an introspective candidate, and perhaps the best analyst of his own political style. "I serve as a blank screen," he wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," "on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.