President Obama’s decision not to release photos of detainees abused while in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan is potentially representative of an important change in the way this administration handles politically sensitive subjects.
Until very recently, the president has displayed a tendency to make decisions on weighty matters by instinct. For all of his hyped “thoughtfulness,” as president, Obama has been less than intellectual in his approach.
When it came to crafting a stimulus bill, the White House could hardly be bothered to check the details. That was left to the Democratic leadership in the House. The president was Billy Mays, out there selling the thing with a huge smile and a glimmer in his eye. But unlike Mays, he hadn’t even tested the product he was pitching. In fact, he pitched it before he even saw it.
The president announced major decisions on stem cell research and abortion funding as if he were announcing that he’d decided to have soup for lunch instead of a sandwich. There was not even an attempt to show that serious thought had gone into the matters. The stated reasoning behind the stem cell decision was so convoluted that clearly no serious thought had gone into it, other than to pick the right political jargon.
The president’s knee-jerk reaction on AIG bonuses was so ridiculous that he had to take it back almost immediately.
But lately, it seems that we’ve begun to see a shift away from the instantaneous application of reactionary liberal positions and toward a more pragmatic approach.
The General Motors bailout, which started as shoot-from-the-hip leftism, was the second instance of Obama’s, shall we say, more nuanced governing.
During the campaign, Obama attacked John McCain for supporting policies that “shipped jobs overseas.” In one ad that ran in Pennsylvania last September, the Obama campaign mentioned a local plant closing and said “Washington sold them out.” Based on his campaign rhetoric, the president should have been absolutely adamant that no GM jobs would be lost over the border. But GM owner Obama faces a reality that candidate Obama never had to face. He has to actually make GM profitable. So the president has not stated opposition to a recommendation from his auto task force to have GM make more cars in Mexico. Outsourcing is bad in principle, Obama claimed during the campaign. Now that he has to actually oversee a company struggling for survival, it’s smart business.
On the issue of detainee treatment, the president released CIA memos that described particular interrogation techniques. It was a knee-jerk liberal reaction, and a costly one. It was costly to the United States and costly to the president politically. It was joined by another knee-jerk decision: to release photos of abused detainees.
Tellingly, Obama decided to release the detainee photos before he had even seen them, according to news reports. That’s not the sign of a thoughtful executive. But after the scolding he got on the CIA memos, he seems to have given the issue some actual consideration. As a result, he reversed course and decided to keep the photos sealed.
“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” he said. “In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”
The exact same thing could have been said of the CIA memos. In that case, the president doesn’t seem to have given his decision a great deal of consideration. Perhaps he did. He supposedly listened to a lot of advice on the matter. But his decision was the same as it would have been had he listened to no one.
The start of this pragmatic trend probably was the rescue of ship captain Richard Phillips. Clearly, Obama’s instinct was not to use deadly force. He waited two days after the kidnapping before he authorized the Navy to kill the pirates. His decision was a pragmatic one reached via deliberation, not gut reaction. It not only worked, it was politically beneficial as well.
Perhaps these decisions signal the beginning of Obama’s slow transition from candidate to president. As a candidate, Obama was free to indulge in all sorts of moral posturing. Shipping jobs overseas is bad! Government secrecy, even on national security matters, is bad! Shooting our enemies instead of talking to them is bad! As president, he is finding that reality is not so black and white. If it helps save a company, outsourcing is beneficial. If it will protect our national security, keeping secrets is a good idea. If our enemies are pointing guns at us and refusing to listen, shooting them hardly makes us barbaric.
Maybe these are just isolated incidents that don’t signify a trend. But let’s hope they do. A pragmatic Obama engages that much-touted brain more than an ideological Obama does. Which means that he makes much better decisions.
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