Sunday, May 17, 2009

Deft Maneuvering - Or Bait and Switch?

Only a few months into his presidential tenure, Barack Obama is already managing to confound most political observers. But what are the qualities frustrating them most? Is the new president being independent, vexatious, or simply traitorous to those who got him elected?

President Obama's inconsistencies are exasperating both liberals and conservatives alike. On the one hand, he seems unwilling to take full advantage of what's been afforded him, i.e., majorities in both congressional houses, an exorbitant reservoir of political capital, and a minority clearly on the run. On the other hand, his caution may be very sapient. The last Democratic president to overreach was rewarded with a furious political backlash. Does 1994 ring a bell? Newt Gingrich? The Contract With America? The Republican resurgence?

The latest 180-degree turnaround by Mr. Obama involves his decision to fight the release of photographs allegedly depicting abuse of detainees. This decision seems to fly in the face of campaign promises that an Obama presidency would operate with transparency. Is president Obama deferring to pressure from the military, or is he surreptitiously contriving the circumstances under which he can appear to be placating conservatives knowing full well these photos are likely to be ordered released anyway? If so, the more deserving tag for the president may be "smooth operator."

Should the president be tiptoeing around Republicans, or is he wasting a mandate to roll right over them? Perhaps the trick he is trying to pull off is rolling over them but without actually appearing to do so. He could - and should - claim that he is bound by both U.S. and international law to investigate accusations of torture. While this would not sit well with Republicans, it should provide enough political cover to disarm many of his detractors.

As for the impending Supreme Court vacancy, a more predictable choice seems more predictable. Surely Mr. Obama will attempt to seat a liberal justice whose jurisprudence recognizes the evolving nature of the Constitution. A modicum of judicial activism is not only wise, it is essential. History is replete with stories of things once legal yet misguided being given the proverbial boot by a modest but enlightened measure of judicial activism.

With contradictory pronouncements emanating from the White House regularly, it's difficult to say precisely where the president's lead will take us on any given issue. And the game of mollifying the opposition can be taken to extreme, in which case the president's true leadership abilities will rightly be called into question.

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