Obama Dances Awkwardly With Bush Policies

By Dan Balz
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

No matter which way he turns, President Obama can't seem to shake the legacy of George W. Bush's presidency. On two issues this week, the Obama administration broke with and embraced the policies of his predecessor, drawing criticism on successive days from both ends of the political spectrum.

The biggest break came with the decision Monday by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to initiate an investigation into allegations of detainee abuse by CIA interrogators and contractors.

Obama, who in his first days as president ordered an end to the agency's harshest interrogation techniques, has said repeatedly that he does not wish to re-litigate the past or subject officials to criminal prosecution if they believed they were operating within parameters approved by their superiors. Holder's decision undercuts Obama's desire to move forward.

The appointment of career prosecutor John H. Durham to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant prosecutions does not guarantee that criminal charges will be filed. But the decision keeps the controversy alive indefinitely at a time when Obama has more than enough controversies to occupy him.

The decision pleased neither liberal nor conservative critics. Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that there is more than enough evidence to warrant prosecutions and accused Holder of "appeasing the political interests in Washington."

Former vice president Richard B. Cheney weighed in late Monday with a statement to the Weekly Standard. He said Holder's decision to hold CIA officials up for possible prosecution and a separate administration policy removing authority over detainee interrogations from the CIA are proof that the Obama administration cannot be trusted to protect national security.

"He's clearly carved out a middle course of not wanting the most egregious behaviors to pass uninvestigated while not wanting judgment of the Bush administration as the centerpiece of his administration," said Robert Borosage of the progressive Campaign for America's Future. Obama, he added, "bent over backward to be sensitive and probably has paid a political price for it."

On the same day Holder made his announcement, it became clear that some elements of the Bush administration's policies for handling suspected terrorists would continue. The current administration will continue the policy of rendition -- shipping suspects abroad for interrogation -- although, administration officials insist, under stricter guidelines that will prevent them from being tortured.

That was the latest example of an area of continuity between Obama's and Bush's national security policies, particularly the policies that were in practice during the last years of Bush's presidency.

The most obvious area of continuity in foreign policy involves two of the key architects of Bush's policies in the final two years of his presidency. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, continue to play central roles in military and security policy of the Obama administration.

In Afghanistan, Obama's departures from Bush's policies have been aimed at augmenting the size of U.S. forces and stepping up the nation's commitment to the war there. In Iraq, Obama has ordered a withdrawal of U.S. forces, as he pledged during the campaign, but on a slightly elongated timetable. In reality, given the relative success of Bush's troop surge policy and the agreements negotiated at the end of his administration, the shift from U.S. to Iraqi dominance in securing the country was already in the works.

In other areas of national security policy, Obama has made alterations but not always full breaks with Bush. In some cases, he has repackaged the rhetoric that describes these policies, but Bush administration officials see clear links.

"None of these are exact replicas of what Bush as doing, of course, and Obama and his team have an interest in not drawing parallels to what Bush & Company did," Bush White House official Peter Wehner said in an e-mail Tuesday. "But they exist."

The following day, when the administration's new forecasts said the country would rack up an additional $9 trillion in debt over the next decade, officials pointed to a series of Bush administration policies that they said had irresponsibly contributed to the deficit. Though they said the steeper-than-expected recession played a major role, the officials also cast blame on Bush's tax cuts, a prescription drug bill that was not paid for, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were never truly accounted for in the budget.

At the same time, Obama interrupted his vacation on Martha's Vineyard to announce that he had decided to nominate Ben S. Bernanke to a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, keeping the Bush appointee in place for another four years. Obama praised Bernanke for his boldness and creativity in dealing with the financial crisis that began to spiral late in last year's presidential campaign.

Bernanke was part of a three-person team during the waning days of the Bush administration that took the first steps designed to stabilize the financial markets and prevent the economy from slipping into a depression. The others were then-Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson and Timothy F. Geithner, then the head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and now Paulson's successor at Treasury.

Together they helped initiate, with Bush's blessing, the financial industry bailouts that have continued under Obama -- to the dismay of some of the current president's liberal allies.

Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution said Obama's moves amount to embracing the Bush legacy while trying to walk away from it. "It was changes made by Bush late in his tenure . . . that are more readily embraced by President Obama." Those policies, he said, most seem to rankle Cheney.

Where there is continuing conflict with Bush policies, Mann said, it is "with the original Bush and the unchanging Cheney, while the overlap is to be seen in some of the more pragmatic moves made near the end of Bush's term."

All this leaves Obama in an uncomfortable position, drawing fire from conservatives while making his liberal friends nervous. It is a clear example of the difference between campaigning for president and actually being president.

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