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For Obama, Deference Is Starting to Become a Troubling Habit

It certainly looks as if President Barack Obama can’t quite make up his mind on how to deal with calls within his party for a full-scale public investigation — with possible legal action — of Bush administration officials who approved of interrogation tactics that most Democrats regard as torture.

The president made it clear initially that he wanted to avoid looking “backward” at the previous administration’s policies, reiterating that view on Thursday at a meeting with Congressional leaders.

But for a couple of days, and in the face of a firestorm of protest from his party’s ideological left, Obama backed off from that position, seemingly handing the issue off to Congress, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democrats are far more inclined to rake Bush administration officials over the coals in the Congressional version of a show trial, and, quite possibly, to go even further.

Obama’s “I can’t quite make up my mind because I’m trying to please everybody” approach on dealing with the matter is reminiscent of his approach on the omnibus spending bill earlier this year. He called that legislation “imperfect” (because it was bloated with earmarks and wasteful spending that he opposes), but he signed it without hesitation, according to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

The president could have used his bully pulpit and political muscle to force Congressional Democrats (and some Republicans, for that matter) to cut some of the unnecessary spending from that bill. Given his standing in the party, he certainly could have succeeded in making the bill more to his liking. He chose not to.

There is a part of this Obama management style that is appealing. Instead of acting as if he has all of the answers, Obama is comfortable delegating and deferring. He prefers to stay above the fray, guiding the nation with his vision but refusing to get his hands dirty.

But in the case of Bush interrogation tactics, deferring to Congressional Democrats and to the party’s political left only drew Obama back into the very fray he was trying to avoid and put at risk his agenda for the next year and a half.

There are many compelling reasons to avoid a “truth commission” or Congressional show trial, but purely from a political point of view, a full-scale witch hunt into alleged Bush administration abuses, including the possibility of prosecution of some, is nothing short of nuts.

First, a truth commission such as the one called for by Pelosi and others would soon become the only story, making it all but impossible for Obama to accomplish his policy agenda. If you are looking for something comparable, think Monica Lewinsky plus the Clinton impeachment, and you’ll start to get a sense about the train wreck we’d be heading for.

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