Barack Obama, we have been told by his admirers on the left and right, is an instinctive centrist, a moderate always ready to negotiate compromises, a politician deeply interested in the nuances of public policy.
But over the course of Obama's first term, this analysis increasingly sounded like wishful thinking. And never more than during the past week, with the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense and with Speaker John Boehner's revelation that in his negotiations last month Obama repeatedly insisted that “we don't have a spending problem.”
Obama went ahead with the Hagel nomination even though Hagel has been greeted with sharp criticism from many of his fellow Republicans and with eloquent silence by elected Democrats.
It's not difficult to understand why. On foreign policy and defense issues, Hagel stands not somewhere between the two parties but conspicuously to the left not only of Republicans but of most Democrats — and to the left of many of the president's own policies.
For example, Hagel was one of two Republican senators who in 2007 voted against designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. The Obama administration accepts that designation.
Hagel has consistently voted against and opposed sanctions on Iran. Obama ran for re-election touting the increased sanctions he has adopted at the insistence of bipartisan congressional majorities.
Hagel has said military action against Iran is “not a viable, feasible, responsible option.” Obama has insisted that all options are on the table should negotiations and sanctions fail to deter Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Hagel has supported direct negotiations with the terrorist group Hamas. Obama has not.
Obama's Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that the defense cuts that would be imposed by sequestration would be “devastating.” Hagel in a September 2011 interview called the Defense Department “bloated” and added, “I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”
Hagel has shown an animus against Israel that is in tension with Obama's assurances that Israel is a valued ally. He was one of only four senators who refused to sign a letter urging the president to express solidarity with Israel and condemn the Palestinian campaign of violence.