Obama ‘04 at odds with Obama ‘08

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Barack Obama, the senatorial candidate of 2004, might have a bone to pick with Barack Obama, the presidential candidate of 2008.

Videotapes of debates and speeches that were obtained by The Washington Times show that Mr. Obama took positions during his Senate campaign on nearly a half-dozen issues ranging from the Cuba embargo to health care for illegal aliens that conflict with statements that he has made during his run for the White House.

For example, in MSNBC’s Oct. 30 presidential debate, Mr. Obama hesitantly raised his hand and joined with most of his Democratic rivals to declare he opposed decriminalizing marijuana. (See clip below.)

But as a U.S. Senate candidate, Mr. Obama told Illinois college students in January 2004 he supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use or possession, a debate video shows.

“I think we need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws,” Mr. Obama said during a debate at Northwestern University. “But I’m not somebody who believes in legalization of marijuana.”(See clip below.)

When confronted with the statements on the video, Obama’s campaign offered two explanations to The Times in less than 24 hours. At first, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said the candidate had “always” supported decriminalizing marijuana, suggesting that his 2004 statement was correct. Then after The Times posted copies of the video on its Web site, www.washingtontimes.com, yesterday, his campaign reversed course and declared he does not support eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use.

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    “If you’re convicted of a crime, you should be punished, but that we are sending far too many first-time, nonviolent drug users to prison for very long periods of time, and that we should rethink those laws,” Mr. Vietor said.

    The spokesman blamed confusion over the meaning of decriminalization for the conflicting answers.

    Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, does not support decriminalizing marijuana. Nor do Republican candidates Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, does.

    Mr. Obama’s differing answers on marijuana are among five conflicts between positions he took while running for Senate in 2004 and those he now articulates while running for president, a review of debate tapes shows. Experts said the likely reason for the changes was that Mr. Obama ran as a liberal during his Senate run but has become more centrist as he pursues the broad coalition required to win the White House.

    “This is mostly evolutionary thinking,” said John Jackson, a visiting professor of political science at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University who has written extensively on Mr. Obama’s 2004 campaign.”It’s not a clear ‘flip-flop’ kind of change, but inevitably, when someone is running for a different position, four years later, there is likely to be some change or some emphasis that gets placed differently.”

    The position changes include:

    • In a 2003 forum on health care, Mr. Obama said he supported the children of illegal aliens’ receiving the same benefits as citizens, “whether it’s medical, whether it’s in-state tuition.” Asked specifically whether he included “undocumented” people, Mr. Obama replied, “Absolutely.”(See clip below.)

    But in a CNN debate Jan. 21, when Mr. Obama was asked whether his health care proposal covers illegal aliens, he said “no” and that he first wants to cover the U.S. citizens and legal residents without health care.

    • In 2004, Mr. Obama told an audience at Southern Illinois University, “I think it’s time for us to end the embargo with Cuba. … It’s time for us to acknowledge that that particular policy has failed.”(See clip below.)

    However, he stopped short of calling for an end to the embargo in a Miami Herald op-ed in August. He said he would rely on diplomacy, with a message that if a post-Fidel Castro government made democratic changes, the U.S. “is prepared to take steps to normalize relations and ease the embargo.”

    “Senator Obama has consistently said that U.S. policy toward Cuba has failed,” Mr. Vietor said.

    • In an October 2003 NAACP debate, Mr. Obama said he would “vote to abolish” mandatory minimum sentences. “The mandatory minimums take too much discretion away from judges,” he said.(See clip below.)

    Mr. Obama now says on his Web site, www.barackobama.com, that he would “immediately review sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of nonviolent drug offenders.”

    When shown transcripts of the videos, Mr. Vietor said: “The American people want a president who is going to be honest with them and talk about how we can tackle the challenges we face.”

    The Times obtained the video footage of the public debates from a variety of sources, ranging from open sources such as YouTube to political operatives who oppose Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign or his Senate bid in Illinois. Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, for instance, recently released footage on its Web site of a 2004 speech in which Mr. Obama spoke about universal health care, accusing him of a flip-flop.(See clip below.)

    Mr. Obama told an AFL-CIO group in June 2003: “I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer, universal health care plan.” But in a recent debate he said he has never endorsed such a plan.

    “Senator Obama has always said that single-payer universal care is a good idea because it would increase efficiency in the system, but the problem is that it’s not achievable,” Mr. Vietor said.

    Mr. Obama is hardly alone in facing charges of flip-flops. Mrs. Clinton has faced the “flip-flop” charge on the North America Free Trade Agreement. In 1996, she pushed husband President Clinton’s trade agreement but now says that it has hurt American workers.

    Mr. Romney also has faced criticism for supporting abortion and same-sex “marriage” when he was governor of Massachusetts, but now opposes both as he seeks the Republican nomination for president. Mr. Romney has said he was always pro-life but respected Massachusetts’ existing laws.

    Experts said there are some similarities between the cases of Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney.

    In 2004, as a state senator, Mr. Obama found himself “among two of the most liberal candidates” in the Illinois Senate Democratic primary, Mr. Jackson said.

    In that campaign, Mr. Obama was an underdog running against a millionaire businessman and the state comptroller. Mr. Obama won the primary, with more than 50 percent of the vote.

    “Candidates, when they run in primaries, they’re generally, on the Democratic side, they’re a little further to the left, on the Republican side they’re a little further to the right than what they run in general elections,” said Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “Most voters are unaware of these issues unless there is really clear flip-flopping.”

    Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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