A divider, not a uniter

Although our new president has had an unusually eventful first few weeks in office, it is too early to draw many conclusions about his presidency. One thing seems clear, however: Obama is not going to be a “post-partisan” president. In fact, the early indications are that Obama will be a more partisan president than normal.

It was never plausible to think Obama would be post-partisan. He was, after all, arguably the most left-wing member of the U.S. Senate. And given the extent of Democratic control of Congress, there was no imperative that he reach out to mainstream Republicans on policy issues.

But Obama did make a few conciliatory gestures during his period as president-elect. Thus, it would have been unfair to dismiss completely the possibility that his presidency might be less partisan than normal until we saw how he governed.

Now we see. Obama pushed for a stimulus package formulated by his party’s left wing. The only ground he gave was the ground necessary to pick up the very small number of Republican votes required to pass a package. There’s nothing formally wrong with this approach, but it isn’t post-partisan.

When it comes to the issue of dealing with terrorists, moreover, Obama shows himself to be hyper-partisan. To the extent that post-partisanship has any meaning, it means what Obama said during the campaign — a focus on “common ground” rather than on “what divides us.” But Obama is proceeding in precisely the opposite fashion on terrorism issues.

There is a vast amount of common ground here. President Obama doesn’t want the U.S. attacked by terrorists any more than President Bush did. And, I feel confident that, in a pinch, the Obama administration will authorize the interrogation methods necessary to obtain information that might prevent the loss of American life. Similarly, like Bush, Obama would like to close Gitmo, but hasn’t yet figured out what to do with the terrorist detainees there.

Yet instead of emphasizing this common ground — ground also occupied by a majority of Americans — Obama has ostentatiously emphasized alleged differences with conservative Republicans. For example, his first executive order (as I recall) was an edict that Gitmo be closed. But Gitmo isn’t being closed; the edict was essentially a statement of intent to close Gitmo dressed up as something more.

Obama further ordered that interrogation techniques be limited to what the Army Field Manual allows. However, Obama isn’t bound by his own executive order; he remains free, as Bush was, to authorize additional interrogation methods. (Obama’s lawyers reportedly have admitted this).

I’m sure Obama has reasons for pretending that he is breaking decisively with Republican policy on dealing with terrorist detainees. But exaggerating what divides us is the opposite of post-partisanship.

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