Witness to his own history
During the 2012 campaign, the president and his top advisers liked to make the argument that if he was re-elected, the “fever” would break. Washington would no longer be the graveyard of progress, the crypt of consensus. Once dystopian Republicans accepted that President Barack Obama was not running again, they would start cooperating with him.
But it’s beginning to sink in that the opposite may be true.
The president called a news conference to mark the first 100 days of his second term, and he quickly ended up playing defense, dwelling on how hemmed in he feels.
ABC News’ Jonathan Karl asked Obama if he was already out of “juice” to pass his agenda, citing the president’s inability to get a watered-down gun bill passed in the Senate, Congress swatting away Obama on the sequester cuts, and the recent passage of a cybersecurity bill in the House with 92 Democrats on board, despite a veto threat from the White House.
“Well, if you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should just pack up and go home,” Obama said with a flash of irritation, before tossing off a Mark Twain line: “Rumors of my demise may be a little exaggerated at this point.”
Then he put on his best professorial mien to give his high-minded philosophy of governance: Reason together and do what’s right.
“But, Jonathan,” he lectured Karl, “you seem to suggest that somehow, these folks over there have no responsibilities and that my job is to somehow get them to behave. That’s their job. They are elected, members of Congress are elected in order to do what’s right for their constituencies and for the American people.”
Actually, it is his job to get them to behave. The job of the former community organizer and self-styled uniter is to somehow get this dunderheaded Congress, which is mind-bendingly awful, to do the stuff he wants them to do. It’s called leadership.
He still thinks he’ll do his thing from the balcony and everyone else will follow along below. That’s not how it works.
How can the president star in a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner satirical film pretending to be Daniel Day-Lewis playing Barack Obama in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Obama,” and not have absorbed the lessons of “Lincoln”?
“Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress,” he said in an alleged joke at the dinner Saturday night. “‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell.”
He insisted primly Tuesday: “I cannot force Republicans to embrace those commonsense solutions. I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can, you know, rally the American people around those commonsense solutions, but, ultimately, they themselves are going to have to say ‘We want to do the right thing.”’
He said that if lawmakers are worried about primaries and afraid that working with him will be seen as “a betrayal,” he can try to “create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country.”
A permission structure?
He might do better to remember what Jeremy Irons’ pope says on “The Borgias,” “Do you not see that even the impression of weakness begets weakness?”
After Syria, Obama discussed another issue where he came across like a frustrated witness to history, rather than shaper of it. After putting the moral quandary aside for political reasons, he finally began urging once more that the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, be closed.
A hundred prisoners there, held for a decade without trial, are on a hunger strike, some being force-fed Ensure through tubes in their noses, despite opprobrium from the American Medical Association.
Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to the White House on Thursday urging the administration to review the status of 86 low-level detainees who were designated for potential transfer more than three years ago but remain in Cuba.
Asked about the hunger strike, the former constitutional law professor in the White House expressed the proper moral outrage at holding so many men “in no man’s land in perpetuity.”
But it sounded as though he didn’t fully understand his own policy.
Closing Guantanamo doesn’t address the fundamental problem of rights. Obama’s solution, blocked by Congress, is to move the hornet’s nest to a Supermax prison in Illinois — dubbed “Gitmo North” — and keep holding men as POWs in a war that has no end. They’re not hunger-striking for a change in scenery.
It’s true that Congress put restrictions on transfers of individuals to other countries with bad security situations. But, since 2012, Congress has granted authority to the secretary of defense to waive those restrictions on a case-by-case basis. The administration hasn’t made use of that power once. So it’s a little stale to blame Congress at this point.
The senior senator from Kentucky has been a leader in Keep-Terrorists-Offshore. Maybe, if the president really wants to close Gitmo, he should have a drink with Mitch McConnell.
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.