My Message to the VPR World(s), with apologies to Kermit

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In anticipation of the discussion about Obama’s presidency during the VPR gig at noon today, I want to step back from my usual approach of bringing social science theory and data to bear on issues of relevance to the American Presidency, no matter how dull or tedious the analysis.  Because the VPR audience extends far beyond the borders of Ripton, or even Vermont, and reaches into the far corners of this planet and many others (judging by my previous appearances some callers are definitely not from Earth), I’m going to wax philosophical for just a bit, in order to drive home a central point:  it’s not easy being President. (Cue Kermit the Frog.)

To illustrate, consider a topic that I’ve posted about before: Obama’s handling of the War on Terror (no longer defined as such, of course.)

Long-time readers remember that I argued back at the start of Obama’s presidency that his conduct of this “war” would not vary much from his predecessor’s, in part because some of the more difficult issues (domestic surveillance, interrogation practices, and prisoner detention) had been worked out in often contentious negotiations between the courts, Congress and President Bush.  It is no surprise that where Obama has sought to differentiate himself most clearly with the Bush administration, (closing Gitmo, trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a New York City federal court) he’s encountered the greatest resistance.  That Obama has hewed so closely to Bush’s strategy, and received so much pushback when he has strayed too far from it, says much about the constraints on presidential power.  But it is also a reminder of the rather intractable nature of the issues pertaining to the war on terror.

As an example, consider the fallout from the crotch bomber incident on Christmas Day.

While in custody, the crotch bomber (Abdulmutallab) was reportedly interrogated for some 50 minutes before being read his Miranda rights, after which he predictably chose to stop speaking. During those initial 50 minutes, it is reported, the FBI learned quite a bit about Abdulmutallab’s links to Yemen and Al Qaeda.  They decided to issue a Miranda warning in order to bring charges against Abdulmutallab in civil court (and in fact sent in a second team of interrogators after the warning so that this second group would have no knowledge of what interrogators learned during the pre-Miranda interrogation – all to insure a clean prosecution.)

Had Abdulmutallab not been issued his Miranda rights, but instead treated as an “enemy combatant” and held indefinitely, would the FBI have learned more?  Would they have uncovered information that would help prevent additional terrorist attacks?  Would they have been able to draw on NSA intercepts and CIA briefings to help piece together more of the relevant details?  Of course, it is impossible to know.  Reasonable, informed people can and do disagree.  The Obama administration, mindful I’m certain of the controversy centered on the Bush policy of indefinite detention of enemy combatants, decided to handle the crotch bomber through the “normal” justice system.  They did, no doubt, in part to send a signal that in contrast to the Bush-era policy, they will focus more heavily on protecting the rights of the defendants under the Constitution and international law.

What’s the lesson? The Preamble to the Constitution lays out that document’s objectives: to establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty.  What it doesn’t do is tell us how to choose between those values – justice versus providing for the common defence; liberty versus insuring domestic tranquility – when they are in tension.  For that we have politics – a messy method for resolving these fundamental tradeoffs, but one that is probably superior to any other method we’ve been able to devise.

In the hothouse media environment of cable news shows and political blogging, in which presidents are routinely demonized (Obama soft on terror! Bush shredded the Constitution!) and accused of acting on the basest motivations, we forget that the decisions that reach the president’s desk are almost always the most difficult ones, often involving choices among equally important values, and with no obvious right or wrong answer.   Too often, the President’s critics dissect the flaws in the choice the President eventually makes, while ignoring the perhaps equally fatal flaws in the strategies Presidents may have considered but rejected.  To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, critics move on to new criticism, but presidents must take responsibility for the decisions they make.

When we evaluate the Obama presidency – or any presidency – we ought to keep this in mind. My goal today is to remind the many millions of those comprising the VPR listening and blogging audience around the world, and on other planets, of this simple fact.

Hope to hear from some of you at noon at: http://www.vpr.net/episode/47854/

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