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

News & Politics

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."

The New York Times editorial page effusively praised the president's stance. Its editorial of May 22 began, "We listened to President Obama's speech on terrorism and detention policy with relief and optimism."

But in two news stories, May 23, Times reporters first pointedly questioned whether the prolonged detention concept was constitutional -- and then suggested that Obama had handed Republicans "a wedge issue."

Having taken a principled position, Obama now needs to deliver -- with a strategy for handling the remaining detainees that both addresses the security concerns and offers more than a fig leaf of constitutionality.

All week, Obama demonstrated his great skills as a teacher and orator, but it remains to be seen how he will use these outsized gifts as challenges on several fronts continue to unfold. He chose to invest some political capital on the issue of reproductive rights, but not on the issue of gay marriage; he took a real political risk in beginning the process of shutting down the infamous prison at Guantanamo but not in aligning himself with a constitutional treatment of detainees wherever they are ultimately housed. And though he criticized financial excess in general terms and had some good things to say about credit card abuses, he has not yet thrown the full weight of his office behind comprehensive financial reform.

It is tempting to explain his choices simply in terms of his own history and deep knowledge of some issues but not others. If there is any issue that Obama knows well, it is constitutional law. One can see the blend of idealism and calculation in his decision to close Guantanamo, but not to insist on full due process for detainees. Maybe this is all that public opinion and anxious legislators can take for now. We'll have to see how the public reacts as he moves forward with concrete plans to change procedures and move detainees.

On financial reform, however, it is very hard, based on past performance, to imagine Obama staking out a courageous position and trying to move public opinion on an issue where most of the Senate is siding with, say, Wall Street. In the coming months, there will be plenty of opportunities. They will include whether to enact regulation of derivatives, hedge funds and private equity companies; whether to support Elizabeth Warren's proposal for a financial product safety commission; whether to keep on bailing out insolvent banks versus taking them into receivership; and how to get serious about saving several millions of American families from foreclosure. On all of these fronts, administration policy to date has been too weak and far too kind to Wall Street.

One thing we learned this week is that whatever this president's deficits, they do not include a lack of eloquence, leadership, or nerve. It makes his attempt to straddle the issue of the detainees seem less than fully thought through, and his dithering on the financial crisis all the more bewildering.

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