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Yes He Can, But Will He? Obama Hesitates to Make the Tough Calls

Obama doesn't lack leadership or nerve, which makes his dithering on the financial crisis and straddling on torture all the more bewildering.

This week, we learned that President Obama really is capable of political courage and idealism, as well as calculation. The question is how he will apply these gifts to the financial crisis as well as to issues closer to both his heart and to the strengths of his intellect, such as defense of the Constitution.

Each of his major speeches of the past week was a tour de force. At Notre Dame he spoke candidly and movingly about reproductive rights and tolerance. His quest for common ground won repeated applause from this largely Catholic audience, some of whom evidently are less dogmatic than their church's leaders. Said Obama:

So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies. (Applause.) Let's make adoption more available. (Applause.) Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. (Applause.) Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women." Those are things we can do. (Applause.)

At Annapolis, he sounded as resolutely committed to national defense as any chicken hawk, and rather more serious about what true national security entails -- and he got repeated ovations from the midshipmen, among them John McCain IV.

Speaking in the Rose Garden on Friday about credit card abuses, Obama signed a bill that takes a small step on behalf of consumers to prohibit the most extreme of bait-and-switch tactics. The President said, "Statements will be required to tell credit card holders how long it will take to pay off a balance and what it will cost in interest if they only make the minimum monthly payments. We also put a stop to retroactive rate hikes that appear on a bill suddenly with no rhyme or reason." Credit card abuses are the easiest to remedy of the financial scandals, but Obama was on the right side of the issue and in good form.

It was his major address Thursday at the National Archives, with America's most sacred documents as backdrop, that was Obama at his most thoughtful and eloquent, as well as brave. "I have studied the Constitution as a student;" he declared, "I have taught it as a teacher; I have been bound by it as a lawyer and legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never -- ever -- turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake."

Obama stuck to his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo, just a day after the Senate, by a vote of 94-6, denied him the funds to shift detainees, out of concern that alleged terrorists would be instead locked up in maximum security prisons in the continental United States, possibly to escape or might someday be released into American communities. It's an absurd worry, yet where to house terrorists is for most legislators the ultimate NIMBY issue.

Obama himself muddied the waters in his insistence that he planned to keep detainees in "prolonged detention," just not at Guantanamo. That, in turn, created the sense that Obama's insistence about shutting down the prison was more about symbolism than constitutional substance.

His rather complex position provided fodder for critics on both the right and the left. Dick Cheney appointed himself to make a quasi-official response, in an unrepentant speech defending torture. I suppose we are fortunate that the faces of today's Republican Party are Cheney and Rush Limbaugh, guaranteeing that the Republicans will stay around 30 percent of the electorate. On the other hand, it is odd that Obama would seize on the symbolism of Guantanamo as abhorrent and inconsistent with American values while insisting that "prolonged detention" without trial for accused terrorists could be justified. In a letter sent Friday to the president, Sen. Russ Feingold warned that "such detention is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world."