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King Solomon in the White House

April 24, 2009

A new Gallup poll revealed that so far, the extremely popular President Obama has exceeded Americans' high expectations for him. But while I have no argument with the high marks he received for his handling of foreign policy and the economic recovery, Obama's first 100 days have at times resembled the tale of King Solomon. Eager to find middle ground on the stimulus, torture, health care and global warming, President Obama despite his overwhelming political capital time has shown a Solomon-like penchant for splitting the difference. And sadly, some of his Democratic allies in Congress seem willing to give their half of the proverbial baby to the Republicans.
The imbroglio over the potential prosecutions of the architects of the Bush administration's regime of detainee torture provides just the latest case in point. Overcoming objections from both the current and former CIA directors, Obama ultimately pressed ahead with the release with the stomach-turning OLC torture memos. But in rejecting probes of CIA personnel and waffling on the investigation of Bush administration officials who authorized potential war crimes, the President is walking a fine line that is increasingly untenable morally, legally - and politically.
U.S. law and American treaty obligations, as Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Turley among others have noted, require the government to prosecute suspected war crimes and violations of torture conventions. And despite promises by Attorney General Holder during his confirmation hearings and again on Thursday not to "criminalize policy differences," Republican fury will not be assuaged. Anything short of a get out of jail free card for the Bush torture team will produce a scorched-earth response from Republicans in Congress. (As it is, the GOP is already threatening to shut down the Senate over the potential use of the reconciliation process by the White House.) Obama's search for consensus, as Paul Krugman suggested today will be fruitless:

"But the answer to that is, what political consensus? There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers. But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama's attempt to deal with our economic crisis and will be equally relentless in their opposition when he endeavors to deal with health care and climate change. The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any."

Of course, that same dynamic - Republican obstructionism now and forever - was on display during the heated debate over the President's $787 billion stimulus package. For all of Barack Obama's unprecedented outreach - the White House meetings, the trek to Capitol Hill, the slimmed down price tag and the bulked up business tax breaks - Congressional Republicans responded with a unified front of opposition. (Back in 1993, Bill Clinton's $496 billion economic program similarly earned exactly zero Republican votes in Congress.) The result, many worry, is a watered down economic recovery package that might yet require a second, more political challenging stimulus bill.
While Obama's steep investment in bipartisanship might yet pay dividends with Republicans in Congress (and it surely has with the American people), he sacrificed a better recovery bill to mollify the immovable object that is the GOP. As Krugman presciently warned in January before the stimulus vote:

"Look, Republicans are not going to come on board. Make 40% of the package tax cuts, they'll demand 100%."

Given the devolution of the GOP into its extremist, Southern rump, there is no longer a "sensible center." And yet, as Republican obstructionism and Democratic squeamishness threaten the public insurance option at the heart of the President's health care platform or the cap-and-trade emissions regime which would help fund it, the Obama White House seeks compromises that could potentially undermine both. It's no wonder, the Washington Post reported ("Health Care Dialogue Alarms Obama Allies") that liberal Democrats are pleading with President Obama, "don't cave on us."
As the polls show, President Obama's well-intentioned quest for common ground is good politics. But it doesn't necessarily make for good public policy. Alas, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In the Judgment of Solomon, the king proposed settling the dispute between the two mothers by cutting the infant in two. But in President Obama's saga, there is no analog to the true mother who reveals herself by her willingness to give up her child rather than see it harmed. In his own party, the likes of Evan Bayh, Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln urge the President to split the difference. And for their part, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and the unappeasable leaders of the Republican Party have just one message for Barack Obama: start cutting.
UPDATE: According to Huffington Post, President Obama made clear to Republican leaders that even his patience is running out. Making clear that the reconciliation process is in the works for health care reform, "President Obama reminded the minority that the last time he reached out to them, they reacted with zero votes -- twice -- for his stimulus package. And then he reminded them again. And again. And again."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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