What Obama’s record tells voters

U.S. Senator Barack Obama leaves the White House after a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington
Just visiting: Sen. Barack Obama, D- Ill., exits the White House after a meeting with President Bush on Jan. 5.Jim Young / Reuters file
/ Source: msnbc.com

WASHINGTON — “The rock star Obama is fun to think about, but does anyone really know what he stands for?”

That’s what Tim LaPointe, a Mason City, Iowa attorney who has long been active in Democratic politics in his state and who supported Howard Dean in 2004 wrote to me last month.

Democrats, and Republicans too, are curious about Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., — curious not merely about the Obama allure, but about his voting record and where he’d try to lead the country if he were elected president.

Obama’s record as a United States senator and as an Illinois legislator shows him to fit comfortably into the Democratic mainstream of sympathy for lower-income people (he voted to raise the minimum wage), support for the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision on the right to get an abortion, support for phased withdrawal of troops in Iraq war but continued funding of those now there, and wariness about laws that might impose what he sees as an undue burden on racial minorities.

Low rating from conservatives
If you’re a conservative, there’s no surprise here: Obama isn’t one of you, except on his support for more disclosure of earmarks, targeted federal spending for local projects.

The American Conservative Union, a right-of-center group that issues a report card on the voting records of members of Congress, gives Obama an 8 out of 100 lifetime rating.

If you’re eco-friendly and want to see certain places kept off limits to oil and gas exploration, Obama is one of you.

Last March he voted against a bill that would have paved the way to oil and gas exploration in part of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Last July he voted to filibuster a bill that would have opened eight million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.

The confirmation vote on Chief Justice John Roberts provides a good case study in how Obama places himself on the political spectrum: he aligned himself with West Coast and Northeastern liberals in his party such as Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California and Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton of New York, all of whom noted against Roberts.

Obama was at odds with western and southern Democrats, most of whom who voted for Roberts: Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Ken Salazar of Colorado, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and others.

Praise for John Roberts
In explaining why he voted against Roberts, Obama told the Senate that he was “sorely tempted” to vote for him. Why?

  • “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind Judge Roberts is qualified to sit on the highest court in the land,” Obama said.
  • “He seems to have the comportment and the temperament that makes for a good judge. He is humble, he is personally decent, and he appears to be respectful of different points of view.”
  • “He does, in fact, deeply respect the basic precepts that go into deciding 95 percent of the cases that come before the Federal court: adherence to precedents, a certain modesty in reading statutes and constitutional text, a respect for procedural regularity, and an impartiality in presiding over the adversarial system.”

So what’s not to like?

Obama said he was skeptical of Roberts’s “deepest values,” his “broader perspectives on how the world works” and his “empathy.”

According to Obama, the chief justice nominee told him that “he doesn't like bullies and has always viewed the law as a way of evening out the playing field between the strong and the weak.”

But Obama didn’t believe it.

“He has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak,” Obama said.

Roberts 'dismissive' on race and women's rights
Obama’s assessment: “he seemed to have consistently sided with those who were dismissive of efforts to eradicate the remnants of racial discrimination” and “seemed dismissive of the concerns that it is harder to make it in this world and in this economy when you are a woman rather than a man.”

Although Obama did not specify what evidence he had for these judgments, he was probably referring to cases such as one in 1990, when as a Justice Department official, Roberts opposed the use of racial preferences by the Federal Communications Commission in awarding broadcast licenses, and in 1982, as a Reagan administration lawyer, when he opposed lowering the standard in voting rights cases from needing to prove a racially discriminatory intent to only needing to show a discriminatory effect.

Perhaps because he is the child of a biracial marriage, Obama seems especially concerned about government treatment of racial minorities.

As a member of the Illinois state senate in 1999, he sponsored a bill to require police to compile statistics on the racial identity of all motorists they stop, a response to allegations that police stopped black drivers more frequently than white drivers.

In 2001 he voted against a bill in the Illinois legislature that would have allowed the death penalty to be imposed if a gang member committed murder "in furtherance of the activities of a gang.”

Obama said it would treat black and Latino people unfairly, and that lawmakers were over-reacting to one incident in which gang members murdered a man in Chicago.

“It's problematic for us to continually pass criminal laws based on anecdote. When we have a single situation when a prosecutor doesn't get what he wants, we come down here and pass a law, which is why we have a criminal code rife with contradictions," the Associated Press quoted Obama as saying.

Self government for Hawaiians
In 2005, Obama, who was born in Hawaii, supported a bill, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act which would have allowed Native Hawaiians to set up their own governmental body to open government-to-government negotiations with the United States.

The bill limited eligibility to take part in this new government to the direct lineal descendants of “the aboriginal, indigenous, native people” who lived in Hawaiian Islands prior to 1893.

Explaining why he backed the bill, Obama said, “Young Native Hawaiians have had difficulties in terms of unemployment, in terms of being able to integrate into the economy of the islands… Some of the historical legacies of what has happened in Hawaii continue to burden the Native Hawaiians for many years into the future.”

The new governing body would “make sure that the Native Hawaiians… are full members and not left behind as Hawaii continues to progress.”

But critics of the bill, such as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said it “would create a race-based and racially separate government for Native Hawaiians.”

In the end the supporters of the bill could not overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

Out of Iraq, but with some conditions
On the premier issue of the day, the war in Iraq, Obama has called for a gradual withdrawal of American troops.

But in a speech last November he left openings for a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq.

He specified a number of conditions under which the withdrawal could be halted or delayed, for example “if the parties in Iraq reach an effective political arrangement that stabilizes the situation and they offer us a clear and compelling rationale for maintaining certain troop levels” and “if at any point U.S. commanders believe that a further reduction would put American troops in danger.”

And he made it clear that, for him, leaving Iraq did not mean leaving northern Iraq, the Kurdish region.

“Drawing down our troops in Iraq will allow us to redeploy additional troops to Northern Iraq and elsewhere in the region as an over-the-horizon force,” he said.

He said it was important to “consolidate gains in Northern Iraq, reassure allies in the Gulf, allow our troops to strike directly at al-Qaida wherever it may exist, and demonstrate to international terrorist organizations that they have not driven us from the region.” 

Last week Obama said he was trying to figure out some way to pay for some operations in Iraq, but not pay for the additional 21,500 troops that President Bush has ordered to go there.

Obama said he wanted to avoid “a game of chicken” with the president.

The “big dilemma,” he said, is “trying to figure out what mechanism we can use to stop what I’m convinced is the wrong policy, without shortchanging the young men and women who’ve already been deployed.”

This carefully modulated position seems right in character for a politician who has already gotten very far in his ten-year career as an elected official.