At least in the area of human rights, Obama’s ‘honeymoon preiod’ seems to have come to an end. Sadly, more and more it is by his own doing, rather than the Bush administration’s actions. All of which is extremely unfortunate, since it didn’t need to happen this way and so many of Obama’s supporters never expected him to maintain so many different Bush policies and precedents. Obama inherited a tremendous range of problems, which gave him more room to maneuver than most incoming presidents, but that seems to be changing.
In the last few days, there have been a range of articles calling Obama out on his current predicament. The NY Times’ David Kirkpatrick and David Herszenhorn focused (here) on how Obama has handed the Republicans a wedge issue when they desperately needed one. Der Speigel (here) focuses more on the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) nature of what it would mean to close Gitmo. While Salon published a long response to Obama’s speech on Sunday and reactions to it by Glenn Greenwald (here), which in particular highlights Senator Russ Feingold’s response to the idea of preventative detention (here). All of it points to the fact that Obama now has his own mess to clean up and that if he doesn’t do it soon he is likely to be smeared by Bush’s legacy far more than he would have ever wanted to be.
In general, the Democrats have been terrible at taking control of public discourse that deals with national security and the threat of another 9/11. During the campaign Obama did a masterful job of controlling his message and use his immense speaking abilities to convince middle America to vote for change from the Bush policies, but lately his team has been getting schooled. Now that being said, I think that Obama won his mandate on his merits; a strong desire to put the Bush legacy in the dustbin of history as quickly as possible; and the fact that McCain ran a horrible, horrible campaign. However, the time has come for him to deliver.
Obama has largely been given the benefit of the doubt for the last five months on the major topics of the day – the financial crisis; fixing America’s banks; repairing America’s standing internationally; and bringing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end. But the issue of torture and the closure of Guantanamo has refused to go away, no matter how much he has tried to push it off the front page. Nor should it. The public as been more willing to buy Obama’s rhetorical approach to that fact that the other problems will require a careful measured approach that will hopefully yield long term solutions, but dealing with the crimes of the Bush administration has been a different story.
Bush’s popularity for much of his presidency rested on his ability to take oversimplified stands that reduced complex issues to black and white talking points. Good versus evil, us versus them, etc. etc. Now I don’t want to see the public discourse return to this, but Obama needs to understand that in order for his rhetoric to stand up regarding human rights, torture and Guantanamo, someone will need to be held accountable. Who that is may be subject to debate, but simply appealing towards a desire to look forward or to be forgiving is not going to work.
Guantanamo must be closed. Each of the 240 remaining detainees must be allowed to go through a legal process, which will determine their guilt or innocence, and subsequent sentencing. If Obama goes through with his idea for ‘preventative detention’ then this issue will continue to linger and his credibility will suffer as a result. It may not suffer so much that he won’t win re-election in 2012, but his desire to restore America’s reputation and standing in the world will largely be lost.