Stanley Kurtz has a long profile on Barack Obama's years in the Illinois State Senate: "Barack Obama's Lost Years: The senator's tenure as a state legislator reveals him to be an old-fashioned, big government, race-conscious liberal."
Kurtz's primary sources are the Hyde Park Herald and the Chicago Defender. Over the last few months, I have gone through a lot of the Chicago Defender stories myself. While I wouldn't spin the facts as negatively as Kurtz does, there are a lot of facts in Kurtz's story that people may not yet realize.
Kurtz on whether Obama is a liberal/progressive:
Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama has made a point of refusing the liberal label. While running for Congress against Bobby Rush in late 1999 and early 2000, however, Obama showed no such compunction. At a November 1999 candidate forum, the Hyde Park Herald reported that "there was little to distinguish" the candidates, who "struggled to differentiate themselves" ideologically. Acknowledged Obama, "[W]e're all on the liberal wing of the Democratic party." Indeed, the common political ideology of the candidates was a theme in Herald coverage throughout the race. Rush's background suggests what that ideology was: A Chicago icon and former Black Panther, Rush received a 90 percent rating in 2000, and a 100 percent rating in 1999, from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Both years the American Conservative Union rated him at zero percent.
So how exactly did these two liberal candidates "struggle to differentiate" themselves in debate? During a candidate forum, for example, when Rush bragged that since entering Congress, he hadn't voted to approve a single defense budget, Obama pounced, accusing Rush of having voted for the Star Wars missile defense system the previous year. Since that contest, Obama's liberalism hasn't exactly been a secret to the folks back home. In 2002, Obama himself could speak hopefully of plans "to move a progressive agenda" through the state legislature, and local observers commonly identified Obama as a "progressive." When it endorsed him for the U.S. Senate in 2004, the Chicago Defender proclaimed Obama "represents renewal of the liberal, humanitarian cause." The Defender went on to assure readers that Obama would support "progressive action" in Washington.
The most interesting characterization came from Obama himself, who laid out his U.S. Senate campaign strategy for the Defender in 2003: "[A]s you combine a strong African-American base with progressive white and Latino voters, I think it is a recipe for success in the primary and in the general election." Putting the point slightly differently, Obama added, "When you combine . . .an energized African-American voter base and effective coalition-building with other progressive sectors of the population, we think we have a recipe for victory." Obama consciously constructed his election strategy on a foundation of leftist ideology and racial bloc voting.
Kurtz on Obama's support for social welfare spending:
Important though it is to Obama, the crime issue runs a distant second to his deepest passion: social welfare legislation. "Big government liberal," "redistributionist"--call him what you like, Obama's fondest hope is to lead America into another war on poverty. Everything in his state-legislative career points in this direction, and Obama calls for a renewal of expensive national anti-poverty programs in his book The Audacity of Hope. True, Obama's promotion of government partnerships with private-sector housing contractors (like Antoin "Tony" Rezko) was supposed to open up novel, post-Great Society solutions to the problem of poverty. Yet, as a devastating Boston Globe report on Obama's Illinois housing policy recently showed, the results of Obama's new war on poverty are just as counterproductive as those of the old war on poverty. Neighborhoods supposedly renovated now lie deserted by the private developers who took Obama's government handouts and ran-quickly building or renovating housing units, but failing to maintain them.
Race and crime issues excepted, Obama's Illinois legislative career as covered in the newspapers essentially boils down to a list of spending measures. . . .
In a 2007 speech to Al Sharpton's National Action Network (NAN), Obama touted his Illinois legislative experience and challenged members of Sharpton's group to find a candidate with a better record of supporting the issues they cared about. . . . Intrigued by Obama's challenge to Sharpton's group, Randolph Burnside, a professor of political science, and Kami Whitehurst, a doctoral candidate, both at the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, decided to put Obama's Illinois record to the test. The two scholars made a study of bills sponsored and cosponsored by Obama during his Illinois State Senate career.
Published in the Journal of Black Studies, the results are striking. Burnside and Whitehurst produced two bar graphs, one representing bills of which Obama was the main sponsor, arranged by subject, and a second displaying bills Obama joined as a cosponsor. In the chart depicting bills of which Obama was the main sponsor, the bar for "social welfare" legislation towers over every other category. In the chart of Obama's cosponsored bills, social welfare legislation continues to far exceed all other categories, although now crime-related bills are visibly present in second place, with regulation and tax bills close behind. According to Burnside and Whitehurst, other than social welfare and a bit of government regulation, "Obama devoted very little time to most policy areas."
This brings us to what is perhaps the most striking result of our tour through Obama's Springfield days. Conventional wisdom has it that John McCain holds a political advantage over Obama on war and foreign policy issues, while Obama is favored to handle the economy. Yet Obama's economic experience is largely limited to social welfare spending. Indeed, precisely because of his penchant for spending, Obama's fingerprints are all over Illinois's burgeoning fiscal crisis. . . .
Illinois's fate may foreshadow the nation's. Obama's small and carefully targeted spending bills were expressly designed to win passage by a Republican-controlled state senate. But if Obama takes the presidency with a Democratic Congress at his back, we'll likely see a grand-scale version of the fiscal mayhem Obama and his colleagues brought to Illinois.
Obama's overarching political program can be described as "incremental radicalism." On health care, for example, his long-term strategy in Illinois was no secret. He repeatedly proposed a state constitutional amendment mandating universal health care. Prior to the 2002 budget crisis, Obama's plan was to use the windfall tobacco settlement to finance the transition to the new system. That would have effectively hidden the huge cost of universal care from the taxpayer until it was too late. Yet Obama touted his many tiny expansions of government-funded health care as baby steps along the path to his goal. The same strategy will likely be practiced--if more subtly--on other issues. Obama takes baby-steps when he has to, but in a favorable legislative environment, Obama's redistributionist impulses will have free rein, and a budget-busting war on poverty (not to mention entitlement spending) will surely rise again.
You can get an idea of what Kurtz is talking about by looking at Obama's campaign website, especially his Plan on National Service, which proposes to bring 50-100 million Americans within his national service programs, including all public school children starting at the age of 10 or 11.
Obama is proposing so many new programs that he has trouble coming up with distinctive names for them: for example, he promises to create a new "Global Energy Corps" --- not to be confused with his new "Clean Energy Corps" and his new "Green Job Corps."