Monday, January 12, 2009

Obama's Janus Dilemma

As he takes the oath in this aptly named month, Barack Obama is faced with looking both forward and back over an enormous list of national problems.

Steering the country through economic minefields will obviously take almost all of his administration's energies but, to the extent that present difficulties are rooted in the disastrous Bush years, the past can't be totally ignored.

In cataloguing the major frauds and deceptions, Frank Rich in the New York Times asserts, "The more we learn about where all the bodies and billions were buried on our path to ruin, the easier it may be for our new president to make the case for a bold, whatever-it-takes New Deal."

In his interview, George Stephanopoulos asked the President-Elect about appointing a special prosecutor to "investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping" and got an ambivalent response, "I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."

Those who were outraged by the Bush-Cheney assault on traditional American freedoms may be disappointed by such hesitation but will have to consider the priorities of doing things right for the future against punishing the wrongs of the past.

Stephanopoulos asked about Dick Cheney's advice: "Before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it."

Obama agreed but not in the way Cheney had in mind. Perhaps the best way to resolve his Janus-like dilemma is the answer Frank Rich got from Henry Waxman, Capitol Hill's "most tireless inquisitor into Bush scandals."

Though Waxman "remains outraged about both the chicanery used to sell the Iraq war and the administration’s overall abuse of power, he adds: 'I don’t see Congress pursuing it. We’ve got to move on to other issues.'

"He would rather see any prosecutions augmented by an independent investigation that fills in the historical record. 'We need to depoliticize it,' he says. 'If a Democratic Congress or administration pursues it, it will be seen as partisan.'”

For Obama, that may turn out to be the best Janus-like approach.

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