Obama turns into Clinton?

A former RNC press secretary says the president has morphed into his old rival, but his claims don't hold up.

By Alex Koppelman
Published May 7, 2009 7:43PM (EDT)

Former Republican National Committee press secretary Alex Conant wrote a pretty provocative article for Politico on Wednesday: It's headlined, "President Obama Is Morphing Into Old Rival Hillary Clinton."

In the piece, Conant argues that Clinton kept campaigning past the time when most people believed it was obvious she could not win the Democratic nomination because she was "fueled by her supporters' convictions that her proposals were better than Obama's." He adds, "After barely 100 days in office, it now appears Obama agrees: Since taking office, he has dropped virtually every position that distinguished him from Clinton."

Conant cites four examples to bolster his case: the Iraq war, healthcare reform, lobbying reform and bipartisanship (or the lack thereof). Altogether, it would make for an interesting argument -- if it weren't completely flawed.

First of all, the Democratic presidential campaign wasn't really about policy differences, or at least not about differences between policy proposals. (Obviously, past stances on Iraq counted for quite a bit.) And policy wasn't what kept Clinton in the race, either. Yes, she was still running for her supporters, but that was about her, the opportunity she had to be a historic first and the inspiration she -- rightly -- felt she was giving to women and girls watching her.

Conant concedes this, at least to some extent, writing, "Granted, there were not many policy differences between Obama and Clinton during the campaign. But those that existed were sharply debated and helped Obama define himself as the pragmatic change agent that many voters now believe him to be."

For a moment, let's assume that's true -- if so, why is the second policy difference Conant cites a dispute over whether to include individual mandates in healthcare reform proposals? Does anyone seriously think that what Americans were thinking when they went to the polls to vote for Obama was, "He's for change, and I know that because he says his healthcare plan wouldn't involve an individual mandate?"

When it comes to his discussion of Iraq, Conant has to completely distort Obama's position in order to make his point. He writes:

Clinton repeatedly questioned the wisdom and sincerity of Obama's pledge to remove all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. It was the biggest difference between the two candidates -- and one of the top reasons Obama won the nomination.

Yet just weeks after entering office, Obama largely dropped his campaign plan. Rather than withdraw all combat troops on a set timeline, Obama opted for a conditions-based withdrawal that will leave as many as 50,000 troops in the war zone at the end of 2011 -- exactly the sort of drawdown he maligned Clinton for proposing.

That's just not true. During the campaign, Obama and his advisors repeatedly made it clear that his timeline would vary based on conditions on the ground. The only people who were saying his plan set an immutable timetable were, well, Republicans -- including Conant. And Obama always said he envisioned a residual force remaining.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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