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For Obama, Deference Is Starting to Become a Troubling Habit

Second, Democrats already are divided over how to handle the matter. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) wants to go much more slowly on investigating Bush interrogation procedures, and you can be sure that there are plenty of Democrats from the South and from rural areas who think that a partisan Democratic show trial of Bush officials would amount to something close to political suicide.

A Democratic Party divided over something as explosive as this would be a party that looks less than completely appealing to all but the most liberal Democratic activists. Don’t Pelosi, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and others on the left remember what happened to Republicans when they tried to take their pound of flesh from President Bill Clinton?

Third, Democratic efforts to publicly destroy former Bush officials surely would run counter to the mood that Obama has tried to create since his election. The president seems truly committed to trying to change the tone in Washington, and while Republicans haven’t been exactly rushing to embrace him, the president doesn’t seem interested in starting a partisan war with the GOP. Many on his party’s left have no such disinclination for bitter partisanship.

Fourth, Democrats could find along the way that there isn’t a bright line of responsibility, and some of them could end up being implicated. Democratic leaders were briefed about the interrogation tactics and failed to complain loudly, complicating the issue and making party leaders appear hypocritical.

Finally, ABC News polling director Gary Langer’s April 23 column, “Obama, Cheney and the Politics of Torture,” points out that the public’s reaction to what Langer calls “types of coercion” and even to “torture” under certain circumstances is complicated. Democrats could unintentionally hand their political opponents an opportunity to paint them as insufficiently committed to take steps to prevent another terrorist attack.

So far, the president has seemed interested in avoiding confrontations — with his own party’s most liberal elements, with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, with the business community over the Employee Free Choice Act, with Canada over NAFTA and even with his Republican adversaries.

Recently, spokesman Gibbs said that it is up to the Justice Department, not the White House, to determine how to proceed on the matter of those who formulated and carried out Bush administration interrogation policy — passing the buck.

But this time, the president has found that his waffling and backtracking have drawn him further into an unwelcome controversy, not inoculated him from it. Sometimes, even presidents who don’t want to make enemies need to draw a line, take control of a situation and tell their party loyalists not to cross it, if only for their own sake. Hopefully, the president has learned that lesson.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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