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Obama and Bush: spot the difference?

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Robin Lustig | 11:01 UK time, Friday, 22 May 2009

Here's a really stupid question for you: Is there any big difference between George W Bush and Barack Obama?

This is how it looked to the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd a couple of days ago, as she imagined a conversation between former vice-president Dick Cheney and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

"You're running national security now and everyone knows it," Rummy says. "You got Obama to do an about-face on the torture photos. He's using our old line about how it would endanger the troops. He's keeping our military tribunals. His Justice Department invoked our state secrets privilege to try to get that lawsuit on torture and rendition dismissed. He's trying to stop any sort of truth commission, thank goodness. He's got his own surge going in Afghanistan. He's withdrawing from Iraq more slowly. He's extended our secret incursions over the Afghan border into Pakistan."

A clever piece of satirical writing? Of course. But like all satire, maybe it also contains a kernel of truth. The former White House legal counsel David Rivkin told me last night that Obama has now "bought into" the view that some of the Guantanamo detainees have to be treated as enemy combatants and will have to be detained indefinitely.

That's not quite how the President put it in his typically eloquent speech at the National Archives Museum in Washington yesterday. ("The documents that we hold in this very hall -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights -- these are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the world.")

But when you look at the options he laid out for how his administration proposes to deal with the 240 detainees still being held at Guantanamo (don't forget: many more than that have already been released by the Bush administration), they don't look very different from those adopted by Bush, admittedly under pressure from the US Supreme Court.

Some of the detainees will be tried in normal criminal courts; some will be tried by "military commissions" (although with greater rights for defendants and with no evidence admissible if it was obtained using "enhanced" interrogation methods); some will be released; some will be transferred to another country; and some, if they can't be prosecuted because evidence against them has been tainted in some way, will be subject to a new legal framework, as yet undefined, but understood to imply indefinite detention.

But there are a couple of big hurdles he still needs to jump over. Like who's going to take those detainees who are released? Members of Congress aren't at all keen on telling their constituents that a couple of dozen of ex-Guantanamo detainees are about to move into the neighbourhood - and other countries don't seem too keen either.

As with his U-turn over whether to release more photographs showing US soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama is coming up against the harsh reality of persuading the people he needs to persuade (military chiefs, members of Congress) to see things the same way he does. He prizes consensus, which is another word for compromise, but sometimes that means stopping quite a long way from where he'd hoped to get to.

So his supporters on the left are already disappointed. His critics on the right are suspicious, or dismissive, or both. There are already suggestions that he's preparing to water down some of his health care reform proposals in the hope of reducing some of the opposition from powerful vested interests. If those suggestions are true, stand by for more unhappy Obama-ites.

None of this means that he is a bad man, or a bad President. Nor does it mean that he will not succeed in at least some of his ambitious plans for changing America. But it does mean that as plenty of people warned him before the election, governing is a great deal more difficult than promising.


  • 1. At 5:36pm on 22 May 2009, John_from_Hendon wrote:


    Don't you mean George W Obama? At least over energy policy, the conduct of foreign wars, health care, Guantanamo etc. This is a bit unfair but when you become Caesar you take on Caesar's mantle. This is true throughout the World. When Labour last came to power in the UK they specifically stated that they would continue Tory policies for two years, indeed that was perhaps why they got elected! All states have a permanent Civil Service who just carry on doing what they did before until specifically stopped.

    There is a Republican backlash in the media and advertising at the present time - one of the most pernicious campaigns is to stop the American people benefiting from universal health care. We, I believe, had a similar campaign when the NHS was formed, but luckily the anti-campaigners lost. I am however not so sure about the very well funded American campaign. Similarly with the fuel efficiency programme.

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  • 2. At 11:41pm on 22 May 2009, Richard_SM wrote:

    If they can hold these people in Guantanamo indefinitely then they can pluck anybody, you, off the street and locked away forever. End of freedom. Police State!

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  • 3. At 08:01am on 23 May 2009, expertsceptic wrote:

    Robin, you are wrong in this article to paint President Obama's performance as the mark of an irresolute fllip-flopping person. On Guantanamo, Obama has kept to his campaign pledge to shut the prison facility down and transfer the inmates to Federal prisons on the mainland. The only hitch has been the objection of some Democratic leaders of Congress, to the supposed dangers of having these terrorists so close to their neighborhoods. Obama will have to convince them that the maximum security prisons chosen to hold them will provide a measure of safety that can be assuredly safe for their constituencies. This should not be impossible for him to do with members of his own party. The Republican objectors have more fundamental reasons to oppose closing Gitmo, but this is of less consequence since the Republicans are in the minority in Congress. Obama has also kept to his campaign promise to stop using torture as a policy of national security. He has banned the use of torture based on fundamental violations of American constitutional values. His decision to prevent release of the torture photos was based on the advice of his commanders in the field that the sensational nature of the photos would endanger the safety of troops in the field. Obama has made the safety of troops a priority in his decision making and there is some precedence to this warning of the commanders based on events following the release of photos at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Compared to his presidential predecessors, Obama has been a model of consistency with respect to campaign promises.

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  • 4. At 05:50am on 24 May 2009, MarcusAureliusII wrote:

    It's one thing to spout platitudes from the back seat during a political campaign and quite another to take the wheel and drive as the one responsible for the safety of 300 million passengers. Whoever becomes President of the United States in his first term is on a steep learning curve but Obama is on an especially steep curve having had almost no experience with the federal government. Of his three years as a Senator, he spent half of it running for President. Before that he was the editor of a law journal and a "community organizer" which is hardly an impressive resume to captain the world's largest and most powerful ship of state through very troubled waters.

    The conclusions and actions of whoever is president don't come from party dogma, they come from practical considerations solving American problems from an American point of view with the help of mostly carreer professionals, specialists who do not change with the political wind. As a result, differences in policy among different politicians are far more nuanced than in European politics or in the rhetoric of the political parties.

    Obama's problem is trying to reconcile the continuity of policies carefully worked out as the best solutions to difficult unprecedented situations arrived at during the Bush era while still looking like he's kept his pledge for change. Eloquence will not persuade many people who thought he was something other than an American politician with the need to get elected by saying whatever he had to, and now in office, basically no different than most of the others. His adoring constituents both in the US and abroad do not want to face up to the fact that they've been cynically duped. How lucky for the rest of America though that his inexperience aside, he really is cast from the same mold as most of the rest of us. You'll know that they are resigned to it when they start calling him King George Bush the Third.

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  • 5. At 02:15am on 29 Jun 2009, DeanJameson wrote:

    The King of Pork Spending is alive and well in the US -


    There's going to be another Boston Tea Party shortly in America.

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  • 6. At 5:10pm on 18 Jul 2009, DazWake wrote:

    Maureen Dowd is a brilliant writer...one of the things I miss about living in NY is her columns, though thankfully most are now posted on the web.

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