During the primary, Barack Obama came under some criticism for being inconsistent in his position on single-payer health care. But, he explained his mix of idealism and pragmatism in early 2007:

In a profile of the Senator in the New Yorker this past spring he offered that, “a single-payer system-a government-managed system like Canada’s, which disconnects health insurance from employment-‘would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.'”

Another way of putting this is that Barack Obama would prefer a single-payer system but that it is politically impossible to get it done at the moment and he isn’t going to let people go without health insurance just because health coverage is a theoretically better solution. Now, you can be cynical and say he’s just making excuses, but this is a consistent theme with Obama and I believe it comes from his experiences working with the needy in the inner city. I think those experiences inform a lot of his pragmatic approaches and that what might seem centrist is actually coming from a progressive place. Here he is announcing his faith-based plan:

You know, faith based groups like East Side Community Ministry carry a particular meaning for me. Because in a way, they’re what led me into public service. It was a Catholic group called The Campaign for Human Development that helped fund the work I did many years ago in Chicago to help lift up neighborhoods that were devastated by the closure of a local steel plant…

…There are millions of Americans who share a similar view of their faith, who feel they have an obligation to help others. And they’re making a difference in communities all across this country – through initiatives like Ready4Work, which is helping ensure that ex-offenders don’t return to a life of crime; or Catholic Charities, which is feeding the hungry and making sure we don’t have homeless veterans sleeping on the streets of Chicago; or the good work that’s being done by a coalition of religious groups to rebuild New Orleans.

You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who’ve come together around a common faith, they’re usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they’re particularly well-placed to offer help. As I’ve said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

Anyone that has done political work in the inner city is familiar with the essential work that faith-based groups do for the homeless, people with AIDs, the elderly and infirm, and with troubled youth and released felons. And, anyone who’s been down in those trenches knows that as much as we might want the local, state, and federal governments to do more, they aren’t doing it right now. There is no ready substitute for the work of faith-based groups. That’s why you’ll see a lot more sympathy for federal funding of faith-based groups in the urban progressive community than you will see in the academic progressive community which tends to worry about proselytizing and the irrationality of religion.

We see these same urban progressive instincts informing today’s call for a National Service Program:

“We will ask Americans to serve. We will create new opportunities for Americans to serve. And we will direct that service to our most pressing national challenges.”

He added, “When you choose to serve — whether it’s your nation, your community or simply your neighborhood — you are connected to that fundamental American ideal that we want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness not just for ourselves, but for all Americans. That’s why it’s called the American dream.”

Obama highlighted his time as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side and his stint heading Project Vote, a group that helped register 150,000 new African-American voters in the Illinois city, according to his campaign.

“I wasn’t just helping other people. Through service, I found a community that embraced me; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction I’d been seeking. Through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America,” he said.

Another area where urban progressives often flirt with centrist/conservative opinion is on the issue of school vouchers. It’s another example of where frustrated progressives become so despairing of the problems of the present that they are willing to entertain anything that might help. Obama opposes vouchers, but not rigidly, as we learned this spring.

“I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn,” Mr. Obama, who has previously said he opposes vouchers, said in a meeting with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “We’re losing several generations of kids, and something has to be done.”

Education analysts said Mr. Obama’s statement is the closest they have ever seen a Democratic presidential candidate come to embracing the idea of vouchers.

Obama has laid out an extensive public education plan that does not include vouchers. But his willingness to keep an open-mind is part and parcel of his determination to go beyond orthodoxy when necessary to address urgent problems.

There is a consistency to his approach. Even Obama’s Father’s Day Speech should be seen in this same light. He knows that absent fathers are undermining the health of the black community and he’s not going to be silent about it because it might offend some people or reinforce some negative stereotypes.

Obama’s approach creates a kind of wedge between urban and academic progressives, and some of these fissures are along the same lines that conservatives have previously identified and sought to exploit. Yet, Obama is not firmly in the urban progressive mode. His willingness to entertain class-based affirmative action, for example, is inconsistent with urban progressivism. Insofar as it is progressive at all, it has been academic progressives that have advocated broadening affirmative action in order to save it. And it is another fault line (this time, between progressives and moderate Dems) that conservatives have probed with much electoral success.

Obama doesn’t fit neatly into any a priori categories. He brings an urban progressive sensibility to problems, but he is intensely practical. He’s also, by necessity, built a coalition that pulls from both urban/academic progressives on one side and from Plains/Mountain state centrists on the other. There is a certain amount of overlap, which is natural for a politician from the Upper Midwest, where progressive idealism has always mixed with more bread and butter issues. See, for example, Minnesota’s Farm-Labor Party.

Added confusion comes from Obama’s attempts to compensate for and anticipate some of his weaknesses. Acting tough on child rapists and defending gun ownership are really defensive measures meant to blunt or preempt Republican attacks. Reversing himself on FISA is an overcompensation that he will live to regret (in his legacy, if nothing else). And these moves can make him look like more of a centrist than he is. Of course, that’s the intention.

It’s really in foreign policy where progressives have the most to fear. We know Barack Obama has good judgment and instincts, but he has no progressive bench to pull from to staff-up his national security organization. He’s relied heavily on staff that opposed the invasion of Iraq, and that’s good. But he is still going to wind up with a national security staff that falls short of his goal of changing the mindset that got into the war with Iraq. We can only hope that Obama’s good judgment and instincts hold, and that he builds up a progressive staff during his presidency that better reflects his values.