The Moderometer: Charting Obama’s Zig-Zag ... Step Left Domestically, Gesture Left Globally, but Keep Your Foreign Policies Somewhat Centered

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. His latest book is: Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents (Basic Books).

            Throughout the presidential campaign, both supporters and opponents of Barack Obama wondered if he was as centrist as he sounded when he called for bipartisanship, or as liberal  as some of his close friends and core principles seemed to be.

            Since his inauguration on January 20, President Obama has alternated between making decisions that incense conservatives and taking actions Republicans support.  Yet this zig-zag has not been random.  The policy shifts detailed below demonstrate a clear pattern in Obama’s decision-making. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel summed up Obama’s approach domestically, saying: You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”  The president has used the economic meltdown to veer left, fulfilling many items on the liberal “wish list” by expanding government, protecting the environment, funding abortions overseas and lifting Bush-era limits on funding stem cell research.

            Regarding foreign policy, Obama has positioned himself as the “un-Bush,” reaching out to America’s adversaries and critics even at the cost of dismaying some of America’s friends, especially Israel. Yet, his characteristic caution has moderated his actual foreign policies. Thus, he has gestured left while governing toward the center, proceeding moderately in his national security policies by not withdrawing too hastily from Iran, increasing troops in Afghanistan, and authorizing attacks from unmanned armed Drones in Pakistan.

            This Moderometer – developed with the help of my students at McGill University and especially Theodoric Meyer -- attempts to convey graphically a sense of whether Obama is shifting left (into blue territory), right into (red territory) or aiming for the center. Periodically, at least twice a month, we will update this chart, trying to choreograph Obama’s zig-zag, hoping that he will fulfill his promise and lead from the center. For information read Launching the Moderometer

July 22: WEIGHS IN ON HARVARD PROFESSOR’S ARREST: Responding to a reporter’s question at an evening news conference, President Obama criticizes the Cambridge Police as “acting stupidly” in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent Harvard professor and friend of the president. Gates, who is African-American, was arrested in his home over the weekend after his lock jammed and he was mistaken for a burglar.  Commentators have noted that it is very unusual for a sitting president to criticize members of local law enforcement.  (Domestic – Left)

July 22: MAKES PRIME-TIME PRESS CONFERENCE PUSH FOR HEALTH CARE BILL: Viewing passage of health care reform as pivotal to his presidency, Obama spends most of his hour-long prime-time press conference championing his approach. “Can I guarantee that there are going to be no changes in the health-care delivery system? No,” the President said. “The whole point of this is to try to encourage changes that work for the American people and make them healthier.” (Domestic – Left)

July 21: SENATE BOWS TO F-22 VETO THREAT: In an important victory for the president, the Senate votes 58-40 to remove $1.75 billion earmarked for the production of seven new F-22 fighter jets. President Obama had repeatedly threatened to veto the bill if it contained money for what he deemed the “unnecessary” new fighters. The vote was based more on pork than party lines: the five Democrats, four Republicans, and one independent from the states in which most of the jobs the planes support are located all voted against the president. From the President’s perspective, he could satisfy the left by targeting the defense budget while placating the right by appearing fiscally conservative (Domestic - Center)

July 13: PUSHES CONGRESS ON HEALTH LEGISLATION: Returning from his weeklong trip abroad, President Obama presses Congressional Democrats to move forward on health care legislation in a meeting at the White House.  The legislation has been particularly bogged down in the Senate, where the Finance Committee is struggling to reduce the potential bill’s trillion-dollar price tag. The president is pushing for both the Senate and the House to pass bills before the August recess. (Domestic – Left)

July 11:CALLS ON AFRICA TO BUILD ‘STRONG INSTITUTIONS’: On his much-anticipated visit to the West African nation of Ghana, President Obama exhorts Africa to take responsibility for its problems and embrace democracy as a means of building wealth. The speech, broadcast throughout the continent and widely hailed by Africans, followed in the footsteps of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; indeed, at one point in the speech Obama acknowledged that he was “building on the strong efforts of President Bush.” (Foreign – Center)

July 8:CHAMPIONS AID TO FARMERS AT G8 MEETING: At the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, President Obama calls on seven other heads of state to contribute $15 billion of agricultural aid to developing countries.  The proposed effort will focus on providing seed, fertilizer, and other agricultural essentials to poor nations, rather than simply shipping emergency food aid in times of crisis. (Foreign – Left)

July 6: REACHES NUCLEAR AGREEMENT WITH RUSSIA: On his first state visit to Russia, President Obama signs an agreement with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to further reduce the number of nuclear weapons in both Russia and the United States. Republicans such as former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton criticized the agreement for going too far in its reductions of missile delivery systems, however, to a number that Bolton called “shockingly low.” (Foreign – Left)

July 4:  REACTS MILDLY TO NORTH KOREA MISSILE TEST: North Korea marked the Fourth of July by test-firing seven ballistic SCUD missiles. The Obama administration was initially silent, just days after appointing Philip S. Goldberg, a senior diplomat who advised Richard Holbrooke in the 1990s, to coordinate international sanctions against North Korea. The United Nations Security Council authorized such sanctions earlier in the month, but many are concerned they will not be enforced, especially by the Chinese. (Foreign – Left)

June 28: SALUTES CLIMATE BILL WHILE OPPOSING TRADE SANCTIONS: Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, President Obama hails the passage of a bill in the House designed to combat global warming as key move toward a more sustainable American energy policy. The president criticized a portion of the bill that would impose trade sanctions on countries that refused to pass similar laws, however, saying such measures sent “protectionist signals.” Free trade is traditionally a Republican area of concern. (Domestic/Foreign – Center/Left)

June 20: ADOPTS A HARSHER TONE IN IRAN CRITICISM: After a week of protests in Tehran following the disputed Iranian elections, President Obama calls on the Iranian government “to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.” The president resisted demands from some Republicans that he condemn the regime and impose sanctions, however. He also disappointed Iranian dissidents by being too slow to condemn the regime. Some experts warned Obama to avoid allowing the Iranian government to paint the protestors as American stooges, undermining the opposition leader Mir-Hossein Moussavi. (Foreign – Center/Left)

June 17: TAKES A CAUTIOUS LINE ON GAY RIGHTS: President Obama signs an executive memo extending some rights to gay and lesbian federal employees and their partners, such as the right to take a leave of absence to care for a sick partner. Gay rights activists, already angered by the Justice Department’s recent argument in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, condemned the president for stopping short of providing full health care benefits. (Domestic – Center)

June 9: TOUTS REVIVED “PAY AS YOU GO” LEGISLATION: The president announces he is sending legislation to Congress to revive the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990, commonly known as the “pay as you go,” or Paygo, law. In theory, the measure would prevent Congress from enacting spending bills without raising taxes or making corresponding budget cuts. A skeptical Republican National Committee, however, responded by issuing a viciously worded statement: “President Obama and Congressional Democrats telling Americans they are committed to budget discipline is like Charles Ponzi telling people to trust him with their money.” (Domestic – Center)

June 4: REACHES OUT TO MUSLIM WORLD IN CAIRO: In a widely anticipated speech at Cairo University in Egypt, President Obama struck a careful tone, reaching out to Muslims while criticizing Iran and calling the United States’ commitment to Israel “unbreakable.” The president stresses that “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.” (Foreign – Center/Left)

June 2: PICKS REPUBLICAN FOR ARMY SECRETARY: President Obama announces that he will nominate yet another Republican to a top administration job, tapping New York Congressman John M. McHugh to be the administration’s secretary of the Army. McHugh’s nomination came on the heels of the president’s selection of Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, another Republican, as his ambassador to China. Shortly after selecting McHugh, Obama also picked former Representative Jim Leach, Republican of Iowa, to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Domestic – Center)

June 1: PUSHES G.M. INTO BANKRUPTCY: As General Motors files for bankruptcy, President Obama announces that the federal government will take a 60 percent ownership share in the “new G.M.”  The United Auto Workers, the Canadian federal government, and the government of Ontario will also own significant portions of G.M. in the president’s plan to temporarily nationalize America’s largest automaker. (Domestic – Left)

May 27: REITERATES CALL ON ISRAEL TOP HALT SETTLEMENTS: After meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton states that President Obama wants to see a complete stop to Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank, including “‘natural growth’ exceptions,” putting the administration at odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president echoed Clinton’s comments after meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, the next day. (Foreign – Left)

May 26: NOMINATES SOTOMAYOR TO SUPREME COURT: After stating earlier in the month that he would select an empathetic candidate to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, the president nominates Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Conservatives attack Sotomayor for a remark made in 2005 suggesting that “a wise Latina woman” might be able to interpret the law better than a white male. Several conservative groups later urge Senator Mitch McConnell to filibuster the nomination. (Domestic – Left)

May 19: ANNOUNCES NEW MILEAGE STANDARDS: President Obama announces new federal vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency standards based on the rigorous California rules previously rejected by the Bush administration. The standards, which had previously been set by the states, will go into effect in 2012. (Domestic – Left )

May 18: SUGGESTS TOUGHER STANCE ON IRAN: After an extended meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office, the president struck a more hawkish tone in his approach toward Iran, saying he expects to see diplomatic results by the end of the year. According to the White House, multilateral talks involving the U.S. and Iran are expected to start after Iran’s elections in June. (Foreign – Center)

May 15: RETAINS MILITARY TRIBUNALS FOR GUANTÁNAMO PRISONERS: President Obama announces that the United States will maintain the military commission system used by the Bush administration for trying some Guantánamo Bay detainees. Despite proposed changes to increase prisoners’ legal rights at the tribunals, human rights groups and the ACLU sharply criticized the move. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) both offered cautious praise, however. (Foreign – Center)

May 13: ATTEMPTS TO BLOCK RELEASE OF ABU GHRAIB PHOTOGRAPHS: In a sharp reversal, the president announces that his administration will seek to block the release of photographs depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib by American soldiers. Though the Pentagon had agreed to release the pictures in April in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that President Obama “believes their release would endanger our troops.” (Foreign/Domestic – Center)

May 8:  RENEWS SANCTIONS AGAINST SYRIA: Even as two senior diplomats are in Damascus, seeking better ties with Syria, President Obama renews the economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed during the Bush years on Syria. In his letter to Congress, Obama accuses Syria of “supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining US and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.” (Foreign – Center)

May 5: SENDS “TOUGH-LOVE” MESSAGES TO ISRAEL: At the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Vice President Joe Biden tells the audience, “you’re not going to like my saying this,” as he pressures Israel to stop settlement activity. Biden’s words, along with speeches from Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton linking progress against Iranian nuclear weaponry with progress toward a Palestinian state, sends a message of “tough-love” to Israel’s new government. (Foreign – Left)

May 4: GOES AFTER OFFSHORE HOLDINGS AND BANK ACCOUNTS: President Obama proposes eliminating tax loopholes that allow multinational corporations and the wealthy to pay little to no tax on certain offshore holdings. While the president champions the changes as a way to pay for middle class tax cuts, members of the business lobby immediately attack the plan. (Domestic – Left)

April 21: TRIPLES SIZE OF AMERICORPS PUBLIC SERVICE PROGRAM: The president signs legislation tripling the size of the AmeriCorps public service program at an event with Bill Clinton and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. The law, which provides $5.7 billion to create 150,000 more places in the program, echoes John F. Kennedy’s calls for national service in the early 1960s. (Domestic – Left)

April 21: REFUSES TO PREVENT COMMISSION INVESTIGATING INTERROGATION:  Under pressure from Congressional Democrats and interest groups, President Obama tells reporters that he would not stand in the way of establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate interrogation techniques used by the Bush administration. The president says he will leave the decision whether or not to prosecute Justice Department lawyers who told the CIA such techniques were legal up to Attorney General Eric Holder. (Domestic – Left)

April 20:PUSHES BUDGET CUTS: In his first full cabinet meeting, the president directs cabinet secretaries to trim $100 million from their budgets. While the action is meant to symbolize the administration’s willingness to combat government waste, several conservative groups mock the token effort. The president counters that the initiative was part of a larger effort. (Domestic – Center)

April 18:  BOYCOTTS DURBAN REVIEW CONFERENCE:  After initially sending diplomats to a preliminary meeting to try salvaging the conference, President Obama announces that the United States will boycott the Durban Review conference, to be held in Geneva. Ultimately, ten counties boycott the conference because of its anti-Israel taint and its risk to free speech. (Foreign – Center

April 17: SHAKES HANDS WITH HUGO CHAVEZ:  Attending his first Summit of Americas meeting, Obama smiles and shakes hand with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. The next day, Chavez approaches Obama again with a handshake, and gives him a book:  Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduado Gaeleano. (Foreign – Left)

April 16:DETAILS CIA INTERROGATION TECHNIQUES: After considerable internal debate, the Justice Department releases four memos describing CIA interrogation techniques used under the Bush administration. President Obama simultaneously declares that CIA officers who used the techniques will not face prosecution, though he does not extend the guarantee to the Justice Department lawyers who advised the CIA officers. (Foreign/Domestic – Left)

April 13:EASES CUBAN ISOLATION: The Obama administration announces it will ease its policies on travel to Cuba, allowing Cuban-Americans to visit without restriction and send unlimited gifts and money. The policy is somewhat more relaxed than under Bill Clinton and significantly more so than under George W. Bush. Several Republicans criticize the decision. (Foreign – Left)

April 12: ISSUES SHOOT-TO-KILL ORDER AGAINST SOMALI PIRATES: President Obama authorizes the use of force against Somali pirates holding American merchant Captain Richard Phillips hostage, leading to the killing of three pirates and Phillips’s release. Though militarily insignificant,  the order stands in stark contrast to Bill Clinton’s failed attempt to land U.S. troops in Haiti during the first year of his presidency. (Foreign – Center)

April 6:  APPEALS TO MUSLIM WORLD: Three days after apologizing in Europe that “there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” President Obama visits his first Muslim nation, Turkey.  In a well-publicized speech, he acknowledges his own Muslim relatives and declares that the United States "is not and will never be at war with Islam." (Foreign – Left)

March 24:BOOSTS SECURITY ON MEXICAN BORDER: Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announces the administration is sending hundreds of federal agents to increase security along the Mexican border.  (Domestic/Foreign – Center)

March 20: REACHES OUT TO IRANIANS: President Obama appeals to the people of Iran via video. In a taped address released on a Farsi festival celebrating the arrival of spring, Obama says his “administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.” (Foreign – Left)

March 19:ENCOURAGES HYBRID CARS: During a speech in Pomona, California, the president announces $2.4 billion in federal funding for plug-in hybrid cars and the infrastructure to support them. He says he intends to put one million such cars on the road by 2015. (Domestic – Left)

March 18: ENDS RAIDS ON MEDICAL MARIJUANA DISTRIBUTORS: Attorney General Eric Holder announces that the Justice Department will no longer raid medical marijuana distributors, a tactic used by the Bush administration. Thirteen states, including California, permit medical marijuana use. Holder indicates he would allocate the department’s resources elsewhere. (Domestic – Left)

March 9:REMOVES LIMITS ON STEM CELL RESEARCH FUNDING: President Obama issues an executive order removing limits imposed on federal funding for stem cell research by George W. Bush, and urges Congress to further ease restrictions. The action draws the ire of pro-life groups, with New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith going so far as to call Obama “the abortion president.” (Domestic – Left)

March 6: CONSIDERS MEETING WITH MODERATE TALIBAN MEMBERS:  In an interview with the New York Times aboard Air Force One, the president said he was open to exploring “opportunities” with more moderate elements of the Taliban, trying to replicate the reconciliation process that worked in Iraq. (Foreign – Left)

February 27: ANNOUNCES CAUTIOUS IRAQ POLICY:  In a speech to U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, the president announces that combat troops will leave Iraq by August 2010. Remaining troops will be withdrawn by December 2011. Arizona Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, told The New York Times that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the plan’s success, a position echoed by former Bush administration officials. (Foreign – Center)

February 26:  SUBMITS HUGE BUDGET REQUEST TO CONGRESS: President Obama submits his $3.6 trillion budget for fiscal year 2010 to Congress. The budget is $500 billion larger than George W. Bush’s 2009 budget and approximately double the size of Bill Clinton 2000 budget. Republicans criticize the budget for increasing both spending and taxation, which New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg predicts will cripple future generations. (Domestic – Left)

February 17:  DEPLOYS 17,000 MORE TROOPS TO AFGHANISTAN: The president announces he will deploy 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, supplementing the 36,000 soldiers already stationed in the country. Antiwar groups criticize the escalation, but Obama decides to deploy another 4,000 troops on March 27. (Foreign – Center)

February 17:SIGNS STIMULUS PACKAGE PASSED MOSTLY BY DEMOCRATS: President Obama signs the $787 billion stimulus package bill after trying and failing to find bipartisan consensus on the issue. No Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for the bill, and only three Republican senators did. One of them, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, has since joined the Democratic Party. (Domestic – Left)

February 9:  WHITE HOUSE INVOKES STATE-SECRETS PRIVILEGE: Douglas Letter, an Obama administration lawyer, argues that a suit brought against Boeing by Ethiopian national Binyan Mohamed in San Francisco should be thrown out of an appeals court because trying the case would force discussion of “state secrets,” a legal tactic also used by the Bush administration. Civil liberties groups criticized the administration’s argument, but White House Counsel Gregory Craig cites historical precedent. “Every president in my lifetime has invoked the state-secrets privilege,” Craig, 64, told the New York Times. (Domestic/Foreign – Center)

February 5:  EXPANDS OFFICE OF FAITH-BASED AND NEIGHBORHOOD PARTNERSHIPS: The president signs an executive order to expand the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, an office created by George W. Bush. Obama does not comment on whether or not organizations receiving money from the office may discriminate based on religion when hiring, a thorny issue for proponents of civil liberties. (Domestic – Center)

February 4:  IMPOSES PAY CAP ON EXECUTIVES OF BAILED OUT FIRMS: President Obama imposed a $500,000 pay cap on some of the senior executives in firms that the government helped bail out by pumping in rescue money.  (Domestic – Left)

February 4:EXPANDS HEALTH CARE COVERAGE FOR CHILDREN:  President Obama signs a bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, an initiative designed to provide healthcare to children of families too well-off to qualify for Medicaid but too poor to afford health insurance. Though President Bush had twice vetoed similar bills, 40 House Republicans vote for the measure this time. (Domestic – Left)

February 4:REVOKES LEASES FOR OIL AND GAS DRILLING: Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar revokes leases to drill for oil and natural gas on more than 100,000 acres of federally owned land in Utah near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Salazar argues that the Bush administration, which had auctioned off the leases in December, had not undertaken proper review procedures to avoid environmental damage. (Domestic – Left [-3])

February 3: SELECTS CONSERVATIVE FOR COMMERCE SECRETARY: After his initial Commerce Secretary pick, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, withdraws his name from consideration, Obama taps New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican, to fill the position. Gregg initially accepts, but pulls out nine days later citing “irresolvable conflicts” between his views and the administration’s. If he had not withdrawn, Gregg would have joined Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood as the Republican cabinet member. (Domestic – Center/Left [+2])

January 27: GRANTS FIRST TV INTERVIEW TO AL ARABIYA:  President Obama grants his first televised interview from the White House to the Dubai-based Arabic-language station Al Arabiya, encouraging an increased dialogue with the Arab world. He criticizes Iran while urging cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. (Foreign – Left [-5])

January 26:  TOUGHENS ENVIRONMENTAL STANDARDS: The president directs the Environmental Protection Agency to undertake a formal review of applications to tighten emissions standards by 14 states, including California. President Bush has rejected similar applications. Obama also issues a directive to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to begin drafting higher automobile fuel efficiency standards. The Department of Transportation releases the standards on March 27. (Domestic – Left [-4])

January 23:  AUTHORIZES DRONE ATTACKS IN PAKISTAN: Two missile attacks in Waziristan demonstrate President Obama’s willingness to continue the Bush-era policy of hunting terrorists in the remote area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, despite Pakistani objections. (Foreign – Center [+5])

January 23:  FUNDS ABORTIONS OVERSEAS: President Obama signs an executive order reversing George W. Bush’s ban on providing federal aid for organizations involved in performing abortions overseas. The ban, first imposed by Ronald Reagan in 1984, became symbolic of the so-called culture wars at the presidential level after Bill Clinton reversed the ban shortly after taking office in 1993. (Domestic/Foreign – Left [-5])

January 22:  CLOSES SECRET PRISONS: President Obama signs executive orders mandating the closure of the Central Intelligence Agency’s network of secret prisons as well as the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. The orders also prohibit the CIA from using the harsh interrogation techniques employed under George W. Bush’s administration. (Foreign – Left [-7])

January 21:  FIRST CALL TO PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT: President Obama called various leaders in the Middle East on his first full day in office, making the first call to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority. (Foreign – Left [-2])

January 21:  SEEKSGREATER TRANSPARENCY: President Obama pushes for great government transparency, trying to limit lobbyists' influence on the White House, and making agencies respond faster and more fully to Freedom of Information Act requests. (Domestic – Left [-3])


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