Obama and the Dems: Look Forward or Back?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

President Barack Obama

Torture, the economic collapse, the controversial firing of eight U.S. federal prosecutors, Vice President Dick Cheney's secret energy task force: there's no shortage of reasons to be scrutinizing the Bush Administration these days, and Congress is on the case on most of them. But from the Obama Administration's point of view, there are equally compelling reasons not to get distracted by public trials that do little to further the President's ambitious agenda of health care reform, the re-regulation of Wall St. and a bill to slow global warming, not to mention dealing with the ongoing financial crisis and ground wars on two fronts. And those two competing perspectives are fueling a defining debate between the Democratic Congress and the Democratic White House: after an extremely productive first 100 days, do they spend the next 100 looking forward or backward? (See TIME's behind-the-scenes photos of Obama's first 100 days)

Certainly progress and accountability are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In striving to hit that middle ground, President Obama released the CIA interrogation memos and last week left the door open to prosecuting former Bush Administration officials who sanctioned the harsh interrogation of terror detainees. But the fact that the nation, or at least the national media, spent the next few days debating the finer points of the insult slap and waterboarding, shows how easily the search for justice can overshadow everything else. Obama is now at a juncture in his agenda where he will need to bring together as many lawmakers from both sides as he can to pass sweeping changes to the country's education, health care and environmental and energy systems. (See TIME's photos of presidential first dogs)

"The danger is that he will be forced to use his political capital on this rather than the economy, health care, cap and trade, education, immigration, etc," says James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Presidential and Congressional Studies. "It sets yet another agenda item for him in a very crowded list of priorities."

The Obama Administration fully realizes this, which explains the moderate path it has chosen to follow. The President has asked the Senate Intelligence Committee to, behind closed doors, peer into the torture(d) past, but opposes a Truth Commission supported by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Quietly, the White House isn't blocking a commission to be formed to look into Wall Street's lapses of judgment that led to the economic collapse, but not empowering it with real teeth: any findings of wrongdoings would simply be reported to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. And then there are the depositions before the House Judiciary Committee from three top former Bush Administration officials, Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten, relating to the U.S. Attorney firings, which the Obama Administration is doing its level best to ignore.

"For Obama, there is no great plus in looking back and trying to make the Democrats' adversaries from the Bush years pay with an extra pound of flesh," says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Independents, including those who drifted over from the GOP because of their unhappiness with the rightward turn of the party — and its incompetence — are not likely to resonate to attacks, and most voters want a focus on problem-solving, meaning looking to today and tomorrow, not yesterday,"

Grappling with a previous administration's wrongdoings is not a new problem. President Gerald Ford will forever be remembered for the line in his inaugural speech — "Our long national nightmare is over" — and his pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon. "Ford had some of the same problems," says Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "Many people were so focused on getting Nixon or re-fighting Vietnam that the pressing agenda of the '70s was lost in the mists of the past."

As much as they would enjoy some retribution, most congressional Democrats also understand the perils of pursuing it too doggedly. There's a reason, after all, why the Democrats, upon winning back both chambers of Congress in 2006, didn't indulge in impeachment trials (though House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers would have liked nothing better): everyone remembers the price the GOP paid for its zealous pursuit of President Bill Clinton in the 1990's. And if Dems are going to overreach, they'd rather it be in the service of trying to achieve a policy goal like universal healthcare or energy reform. Still, the pressure is mounting from the left wing of the Democratic Party and grassroots organizations to at least investigate many of these issues, like torture.

Elected Democrats, though, are also mindful that the GOP, which has had a hard time scoring points against the popular President, would like nothing better than for the Dems to overreach in their pursuit of Bush staffers. "Now that the door's open, I say, bring it on, let's have a big national debate on this," William Kristol, a conservative pundit, said on Fox News Sunday. "Let's have Dick Cheney debate anyone the left wants to produce about whether we were responsible, about whether this was a dark chapter in our history, something that we should be ashamed of or whether the U.S. government behaved in a very fine way, I think, in a very impressive way."

On the other hand, many Republicans are not as excited as Kristol to have Dick Cheney be the face of the GOP. Which means that, in the end, both parties might have very good reasons to look forward and leave the past behind.

TIME sizes up Obama's first 100 days

See TIME's "25 People to Blame for the Financial Collapse"