But three recent news items raise questions about whether Obama has the strength, the resolve, to reach his potential as our nation's chief executive. In some instances, the Obama administration does not seem to be taking serious approaches to issues that matter greatly to many Americans--especially progressives who largely put him into office.
First, comes a report from The Times of London that one of Obama's former mentors has criticized him for running a "complacent administration." Chris Edley, one of Obama's professors at Harvard Law School and now dean of the School of Law at the University of California, says he would give Obama a so-so grade, so far, as president. Writes reporter Gilles Whittell:
President Obama’s self-confidence borders on complacency. He is ill served by senior staff, especially his Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel. He does not appear to be learning on the job as he did when campaigning for the White House. His Administration is too deferential to Congress, too reliant on the President’s personal charm, and as a result is regarded by its enemies as weak and ineffectual.
Whittell writes that this assessment might sound like it comes from one of Obama's right-wing critics. But it comes from Edley, a friend and supporter. Writes Whittell:
“What I fear is that having made history, having won a Nobel prize, having been celebrated around the world, a measure of complacency may have set in,” Professor Edley told The Times. “I don’t mean that the effort is not there, but that the discipline of self-criticism has perhaps faded.”
Professor Edley, who worked in the Clinton and Carter Administrations and is now Dean of the Law School at the University of California, Berkeley, added: “I wouldn’t give [Obama] as high a grade as President as I gave him when he was my student. I know he can do better.”
Edley has his toughest criticism for Emanuel and says he hopes the chief of staff soon will exit the White House:
“You’re not going to reinvent Barack into somebody who delights in pummelling a policy opponent, so his staff need to do that for him. And as far as one can tell from the outside, that is precisely what Rahm Emanuel has failed to do,” he said.
At Obama's invitation, Edley intervened on policy issues during the presidential campaign in 2007--with positive results. Writes Whittell:
Asked what he would say if given a similar opportunity one year into the Obama presidency, Mr Edley lamented the failure of the White House to force Congress into line, as President Lyndon Johnson would have done. “You have to be his inner LBJ, the leader who twists arms past their breaking point and is prepared to make some enemies in order to make some progress,” he said.
Perhaps Obama's greatest weakness has been on justice issues, particularly the investigation of possible crimes by members of the George W. Bush administration. That was the No. 1 concern of citizens who sent questions to Obama's Web site as he prepared to take office in January 2008. But as president, Obama has shown no interest in pursuing the matter.
Consider the Bush administration's legacy of torture. Scott Horton, of Harper's, writes that officials in Canada and Spain have been strongly critical of harsh treatment their citizens received at Guantanomo. In fact, Spanish officials have issued a decision that opens formal criminal investigations into alleged Bush-era torture practices.
What has been the Obama administration's approach to such concerns? Newsweek has reported about signs of a coverup regarding the actions of Bush-administration lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee. Writes Horton:
Meanwhile, in Washington, deep in Eric Holder’s Justice Department, a struggle continues over what to do with the ethics report of the Office of Professional Responsibility, reviewing the role of senior Justice Department lawyers in authorizing and implementing an extensive torture program. Five years in the making, the document was the subject of persistent political infighting as Bush-era officials sought to shut down or direct the investigation from which it arose. OPR concluded that Yoo and Bybee engaged in serious professional misconduct and recommended that their cases be referred to bar associations for appropriate disciplinary actions—a considerably softer punishment than the Spanish criminal investigators now have in mind. But David Margolis, the senior career official at Justice during the Bush years, sought to suppress or reverse the report. Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the report would be out in November; he acknowledged giving it to Margolis for final review and clearance. Now, two months later, it’s still nowhere in sight. But Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff and Dan Klaidman report Margolis’s efforts to gut the OPR report have proceeded.
Finally, we have a report that the Obama Justice Department is serious about at least one issue. If it isn't torture, what is it? Political prosecutions? Warrantless wiretaps? Nope, it's college football's Bowl Championship Series (BCS).
The DOJ is considering an investigation to determine if the BCS violates antitrust laws.
Let's see if we have this straight: We know of at least four citizens--Richard Scrushy from Alabama and Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield from Mississippi--who are being held as political prisoners for "crimes" they did not commit during the Bush years. A fifth citizen, former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, could be returning to federal prison if the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear his appeal.
The Obama administration does not want to "look backward" at such gross violations of civil rights. But it does want to "look backward" at the championship framework employed by college football?
These are the kinds of actions, and inactions, that make an administration look feckless and weak. Some of Obama's greatest admirers are voicing concerns about the messages the administration is sending. Is someone in the White House listening?