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President Above-It-All

President Above-It-All

By Rich Lowry - May 22, 2009

Put Barack Obama in front of a teleprompter and one thing is certain - he'll make himself appear the most reasonable person in the room.

Rhetorically, he is in the middle of any debate, perpetually surrounded by finger-pointing extremists who can't get over their reflexive combativeness and ideological fixations to acknowledge his surpassing thoughtfulness and grace.

This is how Obama, whose position on abortion is indistinguishable from NARAL's, can speechify on abortion at Notre Dame and come away sounding like a pitch-perfect centrist. It's natural, then, that his speech at the National Archives on national security should superficially sound soothing, reasonable, and even a little put-upon (oh, what President Obama has to endure from all those finger-pointing extremists).

But beneath its surface, the speech - given heavy play in the press as an implicit debate with former Vice President Dick Cheney, who spoke on the same topic at a different venue immediately afterward - revealed something else: a president who has great difficulty admitting error, who can't discuss the position of his opponents without resorting to rank caricature, and who adopts an off-putting pose of above-it-all self-righteousness.

Obama has reversed himself since becoming president on detaining terrorists indefinitely and on trying them before military commissions. Once upon a time, these policies were blots on our honor; now they are simple necessities. Between the primary and the general election, candidate Obama changed his mind and embraced Pres. George W. Bush's terrorist-surveillance program. In recent weeks, he countermanded his own Justice Department's decision not to contest a court decision that would have led to the release of photos of detainee abuse.

A less self-consciously grandiose figure might feel the need to reflect on the fact that his simplistic prior positions had not fully taken account of the difficulties inherent in fighting the War on Terror. Not Obama. On the commissions, he explicitly denied changing his view, instead trumpeting cosmetic changes he's proposed as major reforms that will bring them in line "with the rule of law."

For all his championing of nuance, Obama comes back to one source for every dilemma: Bush, as though without his predecessor every question about how a nation of laws protects itself from a lawless enemy would be easy. Under Bush, according to Obama, we set our "principles aside as luxuries we could no longer afford." Even now, there are those - are you listening, Mr. Former V.P.? - "who think that America's safety and success require us to walk away from the sacred principles enshrined in this building." What a shoddy smear.

Consider Obama's breaks with Bush: We have stopped using enhanced interrogation techniques for now, but Obama reserves the right to use them again; we will have military commissions but with four procedural changes; we're going to close Gitmo but find some equivalent detention facility for that category of detainees who, Obama says, are dangerous but can't be tried or released. These are matters of degree and therefore questions of prudence, not principle. If Bush violated our fundamental beliefs, then Obama is violating them, too, only a little less so.

Excoriating Bush is good politics for Obama, which is what makes his repeated exhortations to look ahead so disingenuous. In his speech, he rued that "we have a return of the politicization of these issues." In other words: Dick Cheney, please shut up. But when did the politicization of these issues end? Has the Left ever stopped braying about Bush's war crimes?

Obama bracingly politicized these very issues on the stump, staking out unsustainably purist positions because they suited his momentary political interest. Now that's he's president, he wants the debate to end. He's above the grubbily disputatious culture of partisans and journalists. And he's above contradiction because, as ever, he occupies the middle ground, one "obscured by two opposite and absolutist" sides: those who recognize no terrorist threat and those who recognize no limits to executive power.

And there Obama stands, bravely holding his flanks against straw men on all sides.

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.
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