Several media figures have claimed that President-elect Barack Obama won the election because he ran as a conservative and that notwithstanding Obama's victory, the United States is a conservative country. However, a poll conducted November 4-5 showed strong support for the progressive positions that Obama has articulated on the issues, rebutting the claim that the United States is a conservative country.
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Several in the media have claimed that President-elect Barack Obama won the election because he ran as a conservative and that notwithstanding Obama's victory, the United States is a conservative country. In claiming that Obama ran as a conservative, these media figures ignore the central components of his platform, including repeal of tax cuts for the wealthy, near-universal health-care coverage, and redeployment of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling group, released a poll on November 7 that showed strong support for the positions that Obama has articulated on these issues. The poll also included questions that provided a direct choice between the position taken by Obama on a given issue and that taken by Sen. John McCain (without referring to Obama or McCain) -- with the more progressive choice echoing Obama's position and the more conservative echoing McCain's. For most questions that juxtaposed a clear progressive view with a clear conservative view, the progressive position was more popular. A list of positions Obama took on major issues during the campaign makes it clear that he did not run as a conservative, and the Democracy Corps poll results rebut the claim that Obama ran as a conservative and that the United States is a conservative country.
Democracy Corps polled 2,000 voters November 4-5 and posed several questions as direct contrasts between a conservative approach and a progressive approach, some of which were directly drawn from the arguments made by Obama and McCain. The poll asked which statement "comes closer to your own view, even if neither is exactly right."
The poll asked respondents to choose between these two statements -- "I'm more worried that we will do too little to require fair trade and enforce worker and consumer protections" and "I'm more worried that we will got too far burdening free trade accords with protections for consumers and labor." Fifty-three percent of respondents said the first statement was closer to their point of view, compared with 34 percent who chose the second statement. During the October 16 presidential debate at Hofstra University, Obama said: "I believe in free trade. But I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Senator McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement. And NAFTA doesn't have -- did not have enforceable labor agreements and environmental agreements." McCain, for his part, attacked Obama for "oppos[ing] the Colombia Free Trade Agreement."
The Democracy Corps survey asked respondents to choose between one statement on Social Security, "We need to reform Social Security and protect it to ensure that it's a safety net the American people can count on," and a second, more conservative statement: "We need to reform Social Security and establish personal savings accounts so individuals have more options." The first statement, supported by 63 percent of respondents, is similar to Obama's proposal to "protect Social Security" and "ensur[e] Social Security is solvent and viable for the American people, now and in the future." The second statement, involving Social Security private accounts, was supported by 35 percent of respondents. As recently as July 8, McCain said on CNN's American Morning that he supports allowing workers to divert part of their payroll taxes into private accounts: "I want young workers to be able to, if they so choose, to take part of their own money, which is their taxes, and put it into an account, which has their name on it. Now, that's a voluntary thing, it's for younger people. It would not affect any -- any present-day retirees or the system as necessary."
Regarding health care, the Democracy Corps survey offered a relatively progressive statement, which was supported by 58 percent of respondents: "Our health care system needs fundamental reform, we should regulate insurance companies and give everyone a choice between a public plan or what they have right now." This statement is similar to Obama's proposal for health-care reform, which "[r]equire[s] insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions"; allows individuals to keep their current health-care coverage if they choose to do so; and establishes "a National Health Insurance Exchange with a range of private insurance options as well as a new public plan based on benefits available to members of Congress that will allow individuals and small businesses to buy affordable health coverage." The other statement offered by the survey -- "Our health care system needs fundamental reform; we should give American families more choice by giving individuals a tax credit to choose their own coverage" -- was supported by 38 percent of respondents. That relatively conservative statement was similar to McCain's proposal: "While still having the option of employer-based coverage, every family will receive a direct refundable tax credit -- effectively cash -- of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to offset the cost of insurance. Families will be able to choose the insurance provider that suits them best and the money would be sent directly to the insurance provider."
The Democracy Corps survey also specifically tested many of the policies Obama has proposed, asking voters whether each should be "the SINGLE highest priority, one of the TOP FEW priorities, but not the highest, NEAR THE TOP of the list, in the MIDDLE OF THE LIST, or TOWARD THE BOTTOM of the list of priorities for the new president." If a respondent actually disagreed with an item on the agenda, he or she would presumably place the goal "toward the bottom of the list of priorities." The data demonstrate that the public appears to want action on many of the key pieces of Obama's agenda.
Among the proposals the survey presented that a majority of respondents considered at least "near the top" of their priorities:
- "Repeal the Bush tax cuts for those making over 250,000 dollars and cut taxes for middle class families and anyone making under 200,000 dollars." Sixty percent said this was at least "near the top" of their priorities. Obama proposed "broad-based tax relief to middle class families" and raising taxes on individuals earning more than $200,000 per year and families earning more than $250,000 per year.
- "Make health insurance affordable and accessible to all Americans." Seventy-two percent said this was at least "near the top" of their priorities. As noted above, Obama proposed "a National Health Insurance Exchange ... that will allow individuals and small businesses to buy affordable health coverage."
- "End the war in Iraq responsibly and redeploy our troops from Iraq to Afghanistan." Seventy-six percent said this was at least "near the top" of their priorities. Obama proposed withdrawing troops from Iraq in a way that is "responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government." Obama has also proposed "providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan."
- "Repeal tax breaks that benefit companies that move jobs overseas." Fifty-nine percent said this was at least "near the top" of their priorities. Obama has said, "I want to end the tax breaks for companies that are shipping jobs overseas and provide a tax credit for every company that's creating a job right here in America."
- "End dependence on foreign oil by 2025 by requiring one quarter of U.S. electric power to come from alternative energy where new investments will create new jobs." Eighty-one percent said this was at least "near the top" of their priorities. Obama's energy plan proposes that "10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025."
- "Make job-creating investments in America's aging roads and transportation systems and stimulate new economic activity." Fifty-nine percent said this was at least "near the top" of their priorities. Obama's energy plan calls for "devot[ing] substantial resources to repairing our roads and bridges."
Further undermining media claims that Obama ran as a conservative in an effort to appeal to a conservative country are statements by Media Research Center president L. Brent Bozell III and Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner before the election attacking Obama for embracing "socialism" or espousing views that were contrary to conservatism. As Media Matters noted, after the election, Bozell claimed that Obama ran as a conservative -- a sharp departure from his accusation before the election that Obama was espousing "socialism" throughout the "entirety of the campaign." Similarly, in a November 7 Washington Times column, Feulner claimed that Obama "campaigned on conservative themes throughout the fall" and that Obama "took some conservative positions on issues like taxes (promising to cut them)." Yet prior to the election, in an August 10 column, Feulner had claimed that by "unveil[ing] an economic plan that revolves around raising taxes on the wealthy," Obama indicated that he "want[s] to go back to the policies of the 1970s" under former President Jimmy Carter. Feulner also asserted in the August column that "Mr. Obama promises to 'soak the rich.' "
The following are examples of media figures claiming the United States is a conservative or "center-right" country, some of whom also claimed that Obama ran as a conservative. The blog Think Progress has highlighted a number of these examples.
During the 11 a.m. hour of CNN Newsroom on November 6, Republican strategist Bay Buchanan said, "No question this country is center-right":
TONY HARRIS (anchor): The election is behind us. We can talk about the future and moving forward and getting some things done. You know, I wanted to have you on to ask some pretty straightforward questions.
HARRIS: How will we -- "we," big "we" -- make this work? I'm talking Republicans, Democrats, independents, Libertarians. Republicans -- do Republicans want to work with a President-elect Obama?
BUCHANAN: Well, it all depends on which direction the country -- Obama wants to take the country. If he is really going to govern from the center and recognizes that the nation is center to right, then we're gonna work with him, just as we worked with Bill Clinton to get welfare reform.
But when Bill Clinton wanted to nationalize health care, we fought him tooth and nail. And we won, because the American people were on our side at the time. So, that's what I think is going to be the formula for the next couple of years.
HARRIS: Hey, Bay, you mentioned center-right. You still believe the country is center-right? I'm looking at Indiana. I'm looking at how close things were in Missouri. I'm looking at Virginia. I'm look -- do you still believe it's center-right? Couldn't it just be center, whatever that is, just center?
BUCHANAN: Oh, no. Look -- keep looking carefully there.
BUCHANAN: There's no question that this vote was absolutely against Republicans and George Bush, a repudiation of the direction we took the nation. Ninety percent of the country thinks we were going -- think we are on the wrong direction. So, that's Republicans --
HARRIS: So, did you take it too far right?
BUCHANAN: No, we didn't take it too -- we did not govern using the principles of the party. We abandoned those principles, and we got -- now look at what Obama ran on. One of the key issues was tax cuts. Those two words are basically a conservative message and always have been. And he grabbed them, and I don't believe his tax policy is something I would support, but he sold it as if it were. No question this country is center-right. And we'll be with him as long as he stays moving the country in the direction we believe is in our best interest.
During the November 5 edition of Fox News' America's Election HQ, Fox News contributor Karl Rove said, "Barack Obama understands this is a center-right country, and he smartly and wisely ran a campaign that emphasized that":
BILL HEMMER (anchor): You know, I've thought for a long time that the country was center-right. Maybe that's 51 percent, but still center-right. Did these results make us, or force us, to rethink that?
ROVE: No, no, not at all. In fact, look, remember, we have a Democrat candidate for president. Our president-elect ran on the basis of a tax cut for 95 percent of Americans. He ran television ads in the battleground states that called government-run health care extreme. He attacked his Republican opponent for favoring a tax cut on -- a tax increase on health benefits. I mean, we, we -- Barack Obama balanced his comments about Iraq with tough language on Afghanistan, even threatening to invade an ally. No, Barack Obama understands this is a center-right country, and he smartly and wisely ran a campaign that emphasized that. We're not red states, blue states, we're the United States, and he talked about conservative values such as hard work, patriotism, service to community, and sacrifice for community.
During a November 5 interview on PBS' Charlie Rose, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham said, "It's just this side of possible that Obama will be able to govern, what I believe, is largely a center-right country." As Think Progress noted, Meacham wrote in a cover story for the October 27 edition of Newsweek that "[s]hould Obama win, he will have to govern a nation that is more instinctively conservative than it is liberal -- a perennial reality that past Democratic presidents have ignored at their peril." From Meacham's interview with host Charlie Rose:
ROSE: Fresh, new, different. Where have we transformed politics in this race?
MEACHAM: Well, here's one thing about Obama. You know, he did opt out of public financing. He just spent more money than anybody in history. This is not, I think -- I think progressives should be very careful feeling the millennium is about to come and, you know, disease will be gone by Saturday and poverty by Monday. This is a very practical man. And I think that he's a lot like Ronald Reagan, in that it's quite possible his core believers have such faith in him that they'll forgive him his compromises, that -- you know, Reagan could raise taxes. Reagan could sign liberal abortion bills. He could do --
ROSE: Reagan could talk to the Soviets.
MEACHAM: Right, the Soviets. Reagan could end the Cold -- could do all that. Reagan could grow government by 6 or 7 percent and still be this, this figure. It's just this side of possible that Obama will be able to govern, what I believe, is largely a center-right country.
A November 6 Washington Times editorial stated: "Democrats may argue, why should Obama play fair? He's earned the office, Democrats rule now and Republicans be damned. But we would remind them and Mr. Obama that this is still a center-right country." From the Times editorial:
Mr. Obama is moving quickly. He has reportedly named "hyper-partisan" Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. This contrasts with his acceptance remarks on election night, when Mr. Obama spoke on a theme of bipartisanship: "And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn -- I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too."
Democrats may argue, why should Obama play fair? He's earned the office, Democrats rule now and Republicans be damned. But we would remind them and Mr. Obama that this is still a center-right country. Mr. Obama, despite his liberal record, now represents all Americans -- including the independents, Republicans and Democrats who voted against him.
During the November 5 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Tom Brokaw said, "And this country, even with the election of Barack Obama last night, remains a very centered country, or maybe even center-right in a lot of places." He later added, "We still remain a centered country or a center-right country when you look at the geographic distribution":
BROKAW: And this country, even with the election of Barack Obama last night, remains a very centered country, or maybe even center-right in a lot of places. There were a lot of people who were center-right who crossed over and voted for Barack Obama because they feel betrayed by what has happened in the last eight years with the theology that was preached and then not put into practice by the people who were in office, frankly --
JOE SCARBOROUGH (co-host): Amen on that.
BROKAW: -- on so many levels. The wisdom of the American people is always the most heartening thing to me. You know, they figured out -- we sit here for two -- almost two years now talking about this every day and micromanaging what may happen next.
They're taking it in, they're making decisions about what's in the best interest of their family and community and their country, and they made a big investment in this young man. As Peter Hart said, they voted for hope over fear. Because he is still an untested politician who's coming into one of the worst opening acts I could imagine a president could possibly have.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI (co-host): Tom Brokaw has been fixated on this presidential vote map county-by-county, which shows the colors even more doppled [sic] across the country. If you can hold it up.
BROKAW: We can show that. I mean -- and that's what I was talking about earlier.
BROKAW: We still remain a centered country or a center-right country when you look at the geographic distribution. This is county by county. And I think really that what will happen here is that the American people will have to decide whether their statement last night comes with a compact that they have to make -- with themselves and with the presidency -- that it's not just a fleeting moment.
Just don't give Barack Obama the job, stand back and say, "OK, pal, what are you going to do for us?" Because in this case, it is everybody on deck, all hands on the oars.