Obama flip-flops on pot

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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 Mr. Obama took positions during his Senate campaign on nearly a half dozen issues, ranging from the Cuba embargo to health care for illegal immigrants, that conflict with statements he has made during his run for the White House.

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

But as a U.S. Senate candidate, Mr. Obama told Illinois college students in January 2004 that 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.”

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 that the candidate had “always” supported decriminalizing marijuana, suggesting his 2004 statement was correct. Then after the Times posted copies of the video on its Web site today, his campaign reversed course and declared he does not support eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use.

“If you’re convicted of a crime, you should be punished, but that we are sending far too many first-time, non-violent drug users to prison for very long periods of time, and that we should rethink those laws,” Vietor said. The spokesman blamed confusion over the meaning of decriminalization for the conflicting answers.

Obama’s chief rival in the Democratic primary, Sen. Hillary Clinton, does not support decriminalizing marijuana. Neither does Sen. John McCain nor former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on the GOP side. Rep. Ron Paul, a 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 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 immigrants receiving the same benefits as citizens, “whether it’s medical, whether it’s in-state tuition.” Asked specifically if he included “undocumented” people, Mr. Obama replied, “Absolutely.” (See clip below.)

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

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