The Past's Agenda

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, May 21, 2009

President Obama's lieutenants would love it if all the networks ran a crawl line at the bottom of the screen during news broadcasts that kept repeating: "The economy, health care, energy, education. The economy, health care . . . "

Then there's reality. Over the past two weeks, the past has ensnared the present, deflecting attention from Obama's domestic priorities and raising issues that divide his coalition. We're talking about torture as much as health care, military commissions as much as green energy, and Nancy Pelosi as much as Barack Obama.

In principle, the administration is philosophical about this. "Presidents can't only deal with what they want to," said David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser. "They have to deal with what comes and what they have to."

But Axelrod made clear that Obama truly wishes that some issues could be dispensed with. "The balance he wants to strike," Axelrod said in an interview, "is to solve the mess we found in ways that don't trigger endless, backward-looking partisan battles that inhibit our efforts to get other things done."

This is reasonable, but Obama is caught between two powerful forces and two conflicting ideas.

Republicans want to change the subject from their own party's failures and distract from the progress Obama and Democrats in Congress are making on health care and cap-and-trade legislation. Their slogan might be: Bring on the past!

Many Democrats, in the meantime, are eager to hold the Bush administration accountable for its policies on torture and all manner of other things. They are also uneasy -- in fact, many are deeply unhappy -- with a series of Obama decisions accepting some Bush approaches, notably barring the release of photos of prisoner abuse and continuing to use military commissions to try certain terrorism suspects. The complementary slogan from these Democrats might be: You can't escape the past!

Characteristically, Obama will try to cut through all this with a speech today explaining his decisions, including plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, and proposing, again, that the country move on.

If anyone can work magic with a speech, it's Obama. And he's making his case to a public that already wants to focus on the current domestic crisis and not on leftover issues from a Bush administration many would prefer to forget.

But the fact that Obama is giving the speech reflects the administration's realization that its initial efforts to put these issues to bed have fallen short. Why?

Led by Dick Cheney, many Republicans believe that national security is still the Democrats' greatest vulnerability, and they will try to keep this front open even if it means defending torture. Obama is right to pause before releasing those abuse photographs, and there may be no alternative but to use military commissions in some of the terrorism cases. But in making these decisions, the president has looked more reactive than principled.

Democrats are obviously worried about blowback on these issues, too. Witness the timidity of Senate Democrats on Tuesday (in the face of demagogic Republican pressure) in cutting the administration's request for funds for moving inmates out of Guantanamo. Are Senate Democrats for closing Guantanamo or not? If they want to bar moving prisoners to the continental United States, where will the terrorism suspects go? Guam? American Samoa?

Pelosi, for her part, raised the stakes last week when she said that the CIA had misled her in 2002 about whether the agency was using waterboarding. In doing so, she may have kept alive a Republican story line against her, but the issue of whether the CIA fully briefed Congress cannot now be ignored.

Axelrod spoke warmly of Pelosi, while hoping that the controversy could somehow be put to bed. "We always support her; she's our friend," Axelrod said. "What we're trying to do is urge everyone to move forward."

An excellent idea, but even Obama can't simply wish the past away. He needs to be more forthcoming about why he has changed his mind on some issues.

The administration regularly talks about protecting American values and American security. Even a verbal magician such as Obama can't get around the fact that doing both involves hard trade-offs. To get back to the economy, health care, energy and education, Obama has to answer his civil libertarian critics and Dick Cheney at the same time.

It may be Bush and Cheney's fault, but on national security issues, the words "trust me" don't work anymore.

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