In a Tight Spot

For Obama, being president is like parallel parking.

Barack Obama

Presidential decision-making can be like parallel parking, Barack Obama told Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in January during his first presidential visit to the Pentagon. Were the street clear, he could park anywhere. But he came into office with two wars and a host of other issues left over from the previous administration. His goal, he explained, was to carefully find his spot between existing commitments.

On Wednesday Obama announced another turn of the wheel in this exercise. He has reversed himself and decided to oppose the release of photographs of detainees in military custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s an 11th-hour reversal—the photos were scheduled to be released by May 28—but aides say over the last 10 days, military commanders have pressed the case with increasing urgency that the photos would make it harder for troops in battle. The move comes amid a debate over whether his release of the Bush administration’s torture memos has endangered American national security.

Gently, gently goes this presidency. Obama has been a thoroughly activist president. He plans to expand the role of government in American life. Yet his interventions always seem bound by a pragmatism that his aides constantly talk about. Obama may talk about parallel parking, but even when he’s on the road, his presidency never seems like it’s going to veer too far into the shoulder or across the center yellow line.

Pragmatism is a word Obama aides use suspiciously often. Asked to define the Obama philosophy, one senior administration recently said he was “a devout nonideologue.” (Presumably, that means he prays in the aisle between the pews.) Moderate and independent voters like centrism and nonideological politicians, so that’s why we’re hearing the word so much.

And yet on issue after issue Obama has indeed played it down the middle. He didn’t nationalize the banks but didn’t let them fail. He didn’t completely reverse the previous administration’s position on the state secrets privilege, but he said he would modify it. He campaigned against earmarks but didn’t get drawn into an ugly fight to undo the $410 billion omnibus spending bill. He did not give commanders all the troops they wanted in Afghanistan, but he committed more troops than his liberal supporters would have liked.

Of course, one man’s pragmatism can be another man’s socialism. Conservatives find Obama’s budget an eye-popping exercise in liberal excess, and his spending plans are not yet matched by anything close to the same kind of fiscal discipline.

By reversing his position on the photographs, Obama has angered supporters like Andrew Sullivan and liberal interest groups. “The reversal is another indication of a continuance of the Bush administration policies under the Obama administration,” ACLU attorney Amrit Singh told ABC News. “President Obama’s promise of accountability is meaningless. This is inconsistent with his promise of transparency. It violates the government’s commitment to the court. People need to examine these abusive photographs, but also the government officials need to be held accountable.”

It’s not clear that the announcement will mollify any of Obama’s critics on the right, though it will probably blunt them somewhat. The photographs also steal thunder from the Cheney family, which has been arguing that Obama’s reversal of Bush-era policies was endangering the country. Former State Department official Liz Cheney made the overheated claim that releasing the photographs meant that it had become “in fashion” for the Obama administration to “side with the terrorists.”

White House aides insist that the political blowback from the Bush administration memos played no role in the latest decision. According to administration aides, Obama charted the new course because commanders convinced him that the photos would cause significant problems for troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a White House aide, Obama decided that previous efforts to block the court had not made that case and decided to give that strategy a try.

The fact that President Obama is changing tack and trying a new strategy should not surprise anyone who paid attention to candidate Obama. His was the ultimate pragmatic campaign: In the primaries his positions were never more than a few steps from Hillary Clinton—now, of course, a member of his Cabinet—and in the fall he patiently waited for John McCain to expire. After eight years of a president criticized as ideologically inflexible, he is betting that America is ready for a little pragmatism.