After Too Many Free Passes, Obama Must Answer for White Paper

The Editorial Board

First, it was the financial disaster he inherited upon taking office. Then it was the impossibly obstinate three-ring circus known as the House of Representatives. Then it was his re-election campaign. Then it was the entirely self-imposed fiscal cliff crisis. For the past four years, left-of-center mainstream media pundits have defended Barack Obama time and time again against accusations of passivity (if not downright timidity). Now, following one of the boldest modern inauguration addresses, the clock has been reset and the waiting game will begin again.

The leaking last week of a 16-page memo from the Justice Depart- ment detailing the White House’s drone strikes on suspected al-Qaida operatives should serve as a breaking point. The (at best) ethically and legally dubious “white paper” argues for the lawfulness of killing a U.S. citizen “who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associ- ated force” and “who poses an imminent threat of violent attack to the United States” — but labeling a target an ”imminent threat,” of course, does not require the United States “to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

All of the excuses and explanations we made for his first four years were legitimate, at least to a certain extent, and it is of course true that very few presidents have faced such a daunting task immediately upon entering the White House. But Obama’s presidency cannot be allowed to subtly transform into an eight-year free pass.

For so long we have ascribed such promise and potential to Obama, captivated by his oration, his intellect and his conception of an Amer- ica that could and would truly move closer to its creed of liberty and justice for all. His vision inspired us, but it wasn’t simply that he was visionary — he was brazen about it. We saw a remarkably articulate and educated man determined to wrestle with big issues, willing to wage war at the Capitol if the situation should arise (and the increasingly polarized political climate ensured that it would).

But slowly that resolve morphed into a seeming willingness to concede (and concede and concede). He managed to push through historic health care legislation but dragged his feet on gay marriage, failed to craft truly comprehensive financial reforms, put off legislative confrontations on immigration and gun control and entirely ignored climate change. His promises for sweeping change have come to sound more and more hollow as time drags on.

There’s a classic scene from The West Wing in which President Jed Bartlet, his administration reeling from a series of mishaps, is advised to simply “Let Bartlet be Bartlet” — let his morality be his guide rather than considerations of political expediency or calculation. And while Aaron Sorkin is certainly not the voice of 21st-century politics (we’re looking at you, Newsroom), that piece of advice is one Obama should heed. We’ve simply seen him put on the defensive too many times in the last four years, and the time has come for him to put his mark on the nation that has put its faith in him for two election cycles. It is no longer acceptable for his supporters to throw up his hands for him, exasperated at a dire set of circumstances and a political culture that has turned downright surreal. Though we are loath to admit it, Obama has displayed a certain amount of arrogance while in office — he is all too aware that he is the smartest man in the room, and that has led to an aloofness that allows the GOP to grind Washington to a halt.

Which brings us back to the issue of drone strikes. It is a blatantly immoral and dangerous policy, nearly on par with the worst of the Bush years, yet the Obama administration expects us simply to trust his discretion. With a complacent media willing to do his equivocating for him, why would we expect anything less?