A few more sober observers have noted that Mr. Obama has not actually done anything substantial yet, except spend a great deal of money, and propose to spend even more. His plans would produce trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see - resulting in a doubling of the national debt during his presidency. Only his failure to be re-elected in 2012 would stanch the flow of red ink.
My estimate, however, is that Mr. Obama has accomplished something great - indeed, that he has made good on his promise of "change we can believe in" in an unexpected way. Although analysts seem to differ on whether he meant to do it, what Mr. Obama has notably accomplished is to usher in a new tradition of criminalizing policy differences with the previous administration.
By long tradition, each new presidential administration wipes the slate clean and lets bygones be bygones over policy differences with the outgoing government. This tradition has even held when a previous administration has done actual mischief or vandalism that has hampered the new administration's work. Such was the case when Bill Clinton's staff vandalized computers and other equipment to bedevil George W. Bush's people. Some White House furnishings and belongings had also been pilfered, but Mr. Bush declined to take any legal action that might bring retribution upon Mr. Clinton's staff.
Questionable pardons given by President Clinton - e.g., to the fugitive commodities-trader and convicted felon Marc Rich - were also ignored by Mr. Bush. Current Attorney General Eric Holder was the lawyer who facilitated Mr. Rich's pardon. Mr. Holder now calls his involvement in the matter "a mistake" which he regrets.
Mr. Obama declaimed during his campaign about the Bush administration's "war crimes" - particularly with respect to "torturing" enemy combatants not clearly covered by the Geneva Convention. But the president appeared to back away from any punitive legal action once he was elected. This reticence was not necessarily shared by the Democrats' far left fringe, many of which had been slavering for blood since early years of the Bush presidency. They looked forward to Mr. Obama's ascendancy as a time of "reckoning" for the outrage of Mr. Bush's "theft" of the 2000 election, his arrogant war against the peace-loving Saddam Hussein, his fractured syntax, and his "swaggering" Texas style, in general. (Besides that, Mr. Bush was a moron, and he drove a pickup truck, for heaven's sake.)
Mr. Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on April 19th, stated that the president wanted to move forward, and did not wish to go back to the matter of the "enhanced interrogation practices" used on terrorist captives. Mr. Emanuel said this is "...a time for reflection. It's not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back and any sense of anger and retribution."
But this reasoned, even-handed statement did not sit well with the far left Democrat fringe, from which howls of outrage quickly arose. Subsequently, Mr. Obama corrected Mr. Emanuel's statement when he stated a few days later that no one is above the law. He indicated that he would leave to the Attorney General the determination of whether laws were broken, and by whom, in the "torture" matters. Mr. Obama stated his preference for a "truth commission" to bring out all salient matters. He also ordered the publication of formerly Top Secret memos detailing the practices used and the persons subjected to them.
Political analysts quickly sensed the new vibrations on retro-prosecutions of Bush administration officials - notably, of lawyers who wrote opinions justifying the use of the enhanced methods employed to extract information from prisoners. A furious public debate has thus ensued over whether officials who acted in good faith to protect the country should later be held culpable for apparent violations of laws, now that public sensibilities have changed - or, more correctly, now that parties offended by those actions have a sympathetic ear at high government-levels.
Some politicians currently declaiming about the "war criminals" who authorized waterboarding and the "insect-scare" method of torture (no! not that!) have been fingered as complicit in approving the interrogation methods now being denounced as torture. One of these is current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who was in a bipartisan group of senior members of Congress who received preliminary briefings on the methods proposed, as early as 2002. One congressman from that group says he recalls Mrs. Pelosi asking if "enough was being done" to get the information we needed to protect the country. If she had any doubts about waterboarding, she certainly didn't let on at the time. Perhaps this was because she - like millions of Americans - was scared to death that terrorists would hit another city and kill thousands more people. Somehow, fine points of interrogation "etiquette" didn't seem very important right then.
Senior intelligence experts, including several former heads of the CIA and NSA, have also decried the release of the top secret memos, saying much damage could result with respect to our allies as well as our enemies. Neither of these, they say, will be impressed with our "openness" in releasing important information that should remain hidden. Our enemies will know how to prepare for future interrogations, and our friends will regard us as less trustworthy. These are not good prices to pay for making a few squeamish leftists feel righteous.
The question remains, however, of whether officials of a past administration should be prosecuted for crimes that really are policy differences. I admit to being ambivalent on it. As a conservative, I prefer to keep things as they have been, unless there is a powerful reason to change.
On the other hand, I can see strong reasons for establishing a new standard on retro-prosecutions of policy differences - particularly if the backward reach is not limited to the most recent past administration. After all, how can there be a statute of limitations on war crimes?
I have no doubt that certain officials of the Clinton administration could be held culpable for "violations," considering what we now know and what our current attitudes are toward certain past events. Declining to capture Osama Bin Laden, when he was offered to us, might be a chargeable offense - i.e., "endangering the country" - for instance. The sordid destruction of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas - which cost the lives of 80+ men, women and children - could also be properly investigated.
Various crimes related to the start of the Vietnam War might also attach to the Johnson administration. Some of those people are still around. They ought to be held accountable. (After all, we're still chasing Nazis, 65 years after WWII.)
Years of legal work could lie ahead for enterprising lawyers, many of whom are out of work. Indeed, whole new public-interest legal societies might emerge to handle the numerous retro policy crimes that could come to light.
I would envision establishment of a new Cabinet-level post to handle prosecution of past administrations for newly discovered crimes. The great thing about this would be how it would divert a new administration's attention - and, by extension, the public's attention. A new president might not attempt action on complex problems for years, while it cleaned up residual criminality from previous administrations. (This could actually save us a lot of money and trouble in the long run, as new presidents often have ambitious and very expensive plans.) The Truth Commission could become a standing committee - like the National Security Council - of each president's government.
Of course, this would actually institutionalize partisanship, not diminish it. The great political prizes would become the heads of officials of former administrations. Positive programs or foreign interventions to help the country would take a back seat. The people would constantly be at each others' throats, and few lawyers would want to risk working for an administration. But perhaps this is the price one has to pay for righteous government.
On the up-side, the media would love it. I say it's an idea whose time has come - a stroke of true genius. This does look like Change We Can Believe In. No wonder people love the guy.