When the Obama transition team opened a questions referendum on its popular change.gov website in December, one issue quickly soared to the top. “Will you appoint a Special Prosecutor (ideally Patrick Fitzgerald) to independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush Administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?” And when Obama stepped to the microphone at his first presidential press conference, the question came again, this time with reference to a Congressional call for a truth commission. Obama’s response: “My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen; but that generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.” The answer was a slight variation on the theme he has struck consistently since the final days of his campaign. But what does it mean with respect to the criminal accountability of Bush-era policy-makers? Many are inclined to hear confirmation of their hopes–Republicans eager to see the disastrous Bush years passed over without more fuss will stress the intention not to “look back,” while Obama supporters who embraced his strong criticism of Bush’s torture and surveillance policies will emphasize his observation that “nobody is above the law.” Others are displeased with the ambiguity and press for a conclusive decision on the question.
But these exchanges give us the essence of the “no drama Obama” style: he builds support with lofty rhetoric, giving some sense of his policy objectives, but he consciously avoids committing himself to any particular resolution. Obama is not being coy, I think. He means precisely what he says. Accountability is not a part of his affirmative agenda, least of all for his first hundred days, on which the long-term success or failure of his presidential term may hang. An economic stimulus package, healthcare initiatives and a series of foreign policy challenges occupy center stage. Even in the Justice Department, Obama’s first objectives involve restoring the institution’s self-confidence and resurrecting its historical role in civil rights and voting rights enforcement. It’s not that Obama and his senior advisers see the accountability issue as inherently unimportant–on the contrary, they readily admit that it may be the key to long-term resolution of a series of questions surrounding the abusive extension of presidential power. But it is clearly a back-burner issue for them, something better addressed near the end of his first term or, better still, during a second term.
Obama’s problem is that a growing number of Americans are concerned about what the Bush administration did and are eager to press the issue. The extent of public concern has been reflected in several recent public opinion polls, including one in February by USA Today showing that nearly two-thirds of Americans support investigations of the Bush administration’s use of torture and warrantless wiretapping; roughly 40 percent support criminal investigations.