Listen closely to Barack Obama’s words. Not the rehearsed words about politically abstract concepts like hope and unity that he reads from Teleprompters at large venues. I’m talking about the extemporaneous remarks that form his answers to questions from voters or interviewers.
It is during Obama’s off-the-cuff comments, before the political filter has gone up, that the candidate often gives us his visceral response to a question. It is during such moments, before the talking points have been reviewed, polls taken or interest groups consulted –before, in other words, the political calculating can begin — that Obama often reveals his true instincts and fundamental beliefs on important political issues.
But listen fast. For these moments of candor, having inevitably offended this or that interest group or voting bloc, often require that the candidate quickly “clarify” — that is to say retract, backpedal from or simply obfuscate — his previous comments, often through a media release or press conference.
These are Obama’s moments of candor, promptly extinguished. Listen to them carefully and you can get a sense of what Obama really thinks.
I first noticed this phenomenon last August, when Obama told an Associated Press reporter, “I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance.” But Obama immediately caught himself and, after a short pause, quickly added, “…involving civilians,” finally saying, “Let me scratch that. There’s been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That’s not on the table.”
This incident showed Obama speaking freely, with his guard down. He made the mistake of using the words “in any circumstance,” which were rightly criticized as naïve and presumptuous. Obama instantly recognized his error, but many voters were left with the impression that Obama’s intuition tells him that some options to protect America should never be considered. This is especially troubling given that foreign policy is the area that presidents are mostly likely to govern on instinct.
There have been many other examples of Obama’s moments of candor, promptly extinguished. Perhaps the most prominent of which occurred when Obama told a group of San Franciscans that bitter Midwesterners cling to guns, God and ethnic grudges “as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Obama spent the next few weeks back-peddling, but again many voters felt his comments revealed something fundamental about the way the would-be president from an exclusive Chicago suburb views middle and lower income Americans.
Obama’s most recent moment of candor highlighted an issue upon which he has thus far said little. Last Thursday, when asked by a reporter to clarify his position on late term and partial-birth abortions, which Obama supports, he answered that laws restricting such abortions must contain “a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother.”
Then Obama said something quite shocking.
“Now I don’t think that ‘mental distress’ qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term.”
Obama’s remark betrayed his ignorance about the gravity of the mental health exception for both sides of the abortion debate. In his dissenting opinion in Stenberg v. Carhart, the Supreme Court case declaring unconstitutional a state ban on partial-birth abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas summarized pro-lifers objection to the mental health exception. He explained that, “The exception swallows the rule. In effect, no regulation of abortion procedures is permitted because there will always be some support for a procedure and there will always be some doctors who conclude that the procedure is preferable.”
And that has been the effect. For abortion advocates, the mental health exception is a valuable tool to gut abortion restrictions of any meaningful impact. This explains why Obama’s remark infuriated his base, the leftwing blogosphere. An Obama-supporting blogger on DailyKos wrote, “I am so stunned right now, so utterly flabbergasted, I have absolutely no idea what to do.”
It was thus not surprising that just two days after his moment of abortion candor, Obama repudiated his comment, insisting that he indeed supports a mental health exception. Then, just in case there was any remaining doubt about Obama’s abortion street cred, Planned Parenthood endorsed him for president on Monday, and NARAL, which endorsed him in May, issued a new statement of support.
Last month, Obama turned down John McCain’s offer to join him in 10 town hall-style meetings, during which the two presidential nominees would answer questions directly from voters in small audiences. McCain thrives in such environments, because he is most comfortable engaging people one on one. His “straight talk,” quick wit and ironic sense of humor endear him to voters. No matter whether or not one agrees with McCain, his answers always come across as thoughtful and candid, an appropriate quality for a candidate, as the two words share a Latin root.
I am not surprised that Obama turned down McCain’s invitation. In informal venues, Obama would be forced to speak extemporaneously as he interacts with voters, whose questions tend to focus on concrete policy, and where abstract feel-goodisms do not suffice. It is during these informal interactions that Obama sometimes inadvertently insert into his remarks small moments of candor, which need to be promptly extinguished.
Obama’s brief moments of candor reveal important things about his natural instincts and most deeply-held beliefs regarding important topics like the use of force and the motivations of certain voting groups. Last week, such a moment revealed that Obama understands something most Americans also acknowledge: that “mental distress” is not a valid reason to kill a child.
Which makes Obama’s retreat from his remark all the more shameful. It reveals that for all his talk about being a new kind of politician, he is in fact precisely the kind Americans are tired of enduring … the kind who places political ambition ahead of even his own most basic beliefs about fundamental matters of life and death.