For Obama, Deference Is Starting to Become a Troubling Habit

by Stuart Rothenberg April 30, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

It certainly looks as if President Barack Obama can’t quite make up his mind on how to deal with calls within his party for a full-scale public investigation — with possible legal action — of Bush administration officials who approved of interrogation tactics that most Democrats regard as torture.

The president made it clear initially that he wanted to avoid looking “backward” at the previous administration’s policies, reiterating that view on Thursday at a meeting with Congressional leaders.

But for a couple of days, and in the face of a firestorm of protest from his party’s ideological left, Obama backed off from that position, seemingly handing the issue off to Congress, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democrats are far more inclined to rake Bush administration officials over the coals in the Congressional version of a show trial, and, quite possibly, to go even further.

Obama’s “I can’t quite make up my mind because I’m trying to please everybody” approach on dealing with the matter is reminiscent of his approach on the omnibus spending bill earlier this year. He called that legislation “imperfect” (because it was bloated with earmarks and wasteful spending that he opposes), but he signed it without hesitation, according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

The president could have used his bully pulpit and political muscle to force Congressional Democrats (and some Republicans, for that matter) to cut some of the unnecessary spending from that bill. Given his standing in the party, he certainly could have succeeded in making the bill more to his liking. He chose not to.

There is a part of this Obama management style that is appealing. Instead of acting as if he has all of the answers, Obama is comfortable delegating and deferring. He prefers to stay above the fray, guiding the nation with his vision but refusing to get his hands dirty.

But in the case of Bush interrogation tactics, deferring to Congressional Democrats and to the party’s political left only drew Obama back into the very fray he was trying to avoid and put at risk his agenda for the next year and a half.

There are many compelling reasons to avoid a “truth commission” or Congressional show trial, but purely from a political point of view, a full-scale witch hunt into alleged Bush administration abuses, including the possibility of prosecution of some, is nothing short of nuts.

First, a truth commission such as the one called for by Pelosi and others would soon become the only story, making it all but impossible for Obama to accomplish his policy agenda. If you are looking for something comparable, think Monica Lewinsky plus the Clinton impeachment, and you’ll start to get a sense about the train wreck we’d be heading for.

Second, Democrats already are divided over how to handle the matter. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) wants to go much more slowly on investigating Bush interrogation procedures, and you can be sure that there are plenty of Democrats from the South and from rural areas who think that a partisan Democratic show trial of Bush officials would amount to something close to political suicide.

A Democratic Party divided over something as explosive as this would be a party that looks less than completely appealing to all but the most liberal Democratic activists. Don’t Pelosi, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and others on the left remember what happened to Republicans when they tried to take their pound of flesh from President Bill Clinton?

Third, Democratic efforts to publicly destroy former Bush officials surely would run counter to the mood that Obama has tried to create since his election. The president seems truly committed to trying to change the tone in Washington, and while Republicans haven’t been exactly rushing to embrace him, the president doesn’t seem interested in starting a partisan war with the GOP. Many on his party’s left have no such disinclination for bitter partisanship.

Fourth, Democrats could find along the way that there isn’t a bright line of responsibility, and some of them could end up being implicated. Democratic leaders were briefed about the interrogation tactics and failed to complain loudly, complicating the issue and making party leaders appear hypocritical.

Finally, ABC News polling director Gary Langer’s April 23 column, “Obama, Cheney and the Politics of Torture,” points out that the public’s reaction to what Langer calls “types of coercion” and even to “torture” under certain circumstances is complicated. Democrats could unintentionally hand their political opponents an opportunity to paint them as insufficiently committed to take steps to prevent another terrorist attack.

So far, the president has seemed interested in avoiding confrontations — with his own party’s most liberal elements, with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, with the business community over the Employee Free Choice Act, with Canada over NAFTA and even with his Republican adversaries.

Recently, spokesman Gibbs said that it is up to the Justice Department, not the White House, to determine how to proceed on the matter of those who formulated and carried out Bush administration interrogation policy — passing the buck.

But this time, the president has found that his waffling and backtracking have drawn him further into an unwelcome controversy, not inoculated him from it. Sometimes, even presidents who don’t want to make enemies need to draw a line, take control of a situation and tell their party loyalists not to cross it, if only for their own sake. Hopefully, the president has learned that lesson.