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President Above-It-All

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POSTED: June 3, 2009 9:28 a.m.
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 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 righteousness.
Obama has reversed himself since becoming president on detaining terrorists indefinitely and 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 President George W. Bush’s terrorist surveillance program. Last month, 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 how his simplistic prior positions didn’t fully take account of the difficulties inherent in fighting the war on terror. Not Obama. On the commissions, he explicitly denied changing his view and trumpeted 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. 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.
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.

Lowry is editor of the National Review.
 

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