By Dan Balz
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Through much of last year's campaign, Barack Obama enjoyed the acclaim of a politician who seemed adept at making himself all things to almost all people. Liberals, moderates, even some conservatives, Democrats, independents and even some Republicans all found in Obama change they could believe in.
That was the mark of a skillful candidate who leaves enough unsaid to attract the maximum support possible. But it isn't possible to maintain that posture once presidential decision making begins and choices have to be made. President Obama has found himself under fire from across the political spectrum as he has worked his way through contentious and complex issues, from turning around the economy and bailing out banks to escalating the war in Afghanistan and trying to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Typecasting Obama has also proved difficult. His ambitious domestic policies lean decidedly left (unless he turns out to be the deficit hawk he says he wants to be). Taken as a whole, his national security policies do not, as they represent the triumph of pragmatism over ideology. His surprise selection yesterday of Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah as U.S. ambassador to China only underscored that in his foreign policies, Obama is looking to hew to the center.
For most of his early months in office, criticism of Obama has come mainly from the right. Conservatives have described his stimulus package and budget as a blueprint for fiscal and economic calamity. They have opposed his decisions to close Guantanamo, to ban the harsh interrogation techniques employed by the Bush administration and to release Justice Department memos providing legal justification for those techniques. Former vice president Richard B. Cheney has led that charge, accusing Obama of making the country less safe than it was under President George W. Bush.
Those attacks were expected. What has been more surprising is that Obama has gotten himself into a scrap with the left as he has begun to refine those very national security policies that seemed to signal such a sharp break with the Bush administration. The eruption of anger on the left suggests a new phase of Obama's presidency that represents a significant step in his transition from candidate to commander in chief.
Obama owes his victory last year in part to the enthusiastic support of an energized left. His opposition to the Iraq war and his condemnation of Bush's treatment of terrorism suspects and enemy combatants signaled a new path in foreign policy that the left wholeheartedly applauded. By announcing in his first days as president his determination to close Guantanamo and ban torture, Obama symbolically made good on those campaign promises.
Then the hard work began. Closing Guantanamo is one thing; figuring out what to do with the detainees is another. The administration still has no clear plan, and there is restiveness on Capitol Hill. Bringing an end to the contentious debate over the interrogation tactics also has left Obama in the crossfire between two sides determined to have a more public airing of all those Bush policies. Obama has tried to steer carefully through this minefield, but it's not clear how long he will be able to do so.
But it was two decisions last week that touched off a controversy with the left. The first was a reversal by the president. After saying he favored the release of damaging photographs showing prisoners being abused while in U.S. custody, he announced that he would not seek their release. Public disclosure, he said, would threaten the safety of U.S. military personnel abroad and could inflame the rest of the world as he is trying to win new respect for the United States.
Then on Friday came the decision to resume, with some modifications, the military tribunals used by the Bush administration since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This was not a total reversal, and administration officials insisted that prisoners would be given more rights. But human rights and civil liberties groups condemned the decision. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was left to complain that after starting the week under fire for breaking with the Bush administration on anti-terrorism policy, the administration was being criticized for embracing Bush-era policies.
The decisions underscored an important facet of Obama's decision making, which is his capacity to rethink positions and to change his mind as he learns more or conditions change. And he tends whenever possible to seek consensus. Those on the left and right often overlook this aspect of his governing style, though it was one of the factors that drew many people during the campaign.
The other reality that last week's decisions highlighted is Obama's willingness to disappoint his allies, which suggests that he feels he owes no group or groups unduly for his victory. He has sent the same message to organized labor by refusing to push hard for its top priority, the employee free choice act.
In the health-care debate, he is disappointing those on the left who say a single-payer plan should at least be part of the debate, and he may anger some liberal allies if he succumbs to pressure in Congress not to include a government-run insurance plan as an option in a reform package. He upset those bent on changing Washington's ways when he ducked a confrontation with Congress over earmarks he had criticized as a candidate.
A politician who got to know him well over the past few years was ruminating recently about Obama in the context of whom he chooses to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the announced retirement of Justice David H. Souter. Would Obama name a Hispanic to the court to satisfy demands of Latino groups? This politician said he is skeptical, and noted that the president often seems oblivious to the political considerations that one assumes influence such decisions. "He's so confident -- in a healthy way -- in his ability that he's doing the right thing that these political considerations aren't terribly big with him," this elected official said.
The backlash on the left may be a temporary breach without great consequence for Obama. In polls, he continues to enjoy overwhelming support from those who identify themselves as liberals. But there are signs of tension with liberal constituency groups and with some liberal lawmakers. When the House approved a $96.7 billion funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan last week, 51 Democrats voted no. Some of them expressed concern that Obama has embarked on a highly risky strategy without clear goals or an exit strategy.
Like his opponents, Obama's allies are learning that the president is willing to chart his own course and risk the political consequences.