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Obama flip-flops on pot

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2008

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.

"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.

• In a 2004 video, 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-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 that he would "immediately review sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the ineffective warehousing of non-violent 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.)

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.