Obama's promises, then and now

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama was very clear. The Armenian genocide was not an "allegation" or a "personal opinion" or a "point of view." It was, he said, a widely documented fact. He promised that if he were elected, he would issue an official presidential declaration that the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks constituted nothing less than genocide.

But President Obama isn't so sure. As he prepares for a visit to Turkey next month, his aides have let it be known that the president might have to defer the promised declaration, which Armenian Americans had expected in time for the annual day of remembrance on April 24. The Obama administration has been eagerly soliciting the help of the Turkish government on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, and now, according to the man who once promised to "speak truthfully about the Armenian genocide," is not the moment to rub the Turks the wrong way.

What is one to make of that? Is Obama a hypocrite? A liar? Another cynical over-promiser who will say whatever it takes to get elected only to reverse himself after the votes are counted?

We think that's too strong. Every incoming president finds his goals tempered by unforeseen political realities, his beliefs shaded by new facts learned behind closed doors, his promises winnowed by the amount of political capital required to carry them out -- as well as by the fear of failure or misstep. In the real world, turning hope into change is a big, difficult project. As Mario Cuomo once said: "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose."

To give him his due, Obama has already made good on certain key promises. He's declared an end to coercive interrogations. He's lifted the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. He's opened more government documents to public view. He's reiterated his determination to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and end the war in Iraq, although not as quickly as some had hoped.

Other promises, however, have fared less well. On the Armenian genocide, for instance, principle crashed head-on into realpolitik. It's undeniable that the U.S. needs Turkey's help and goodwill; Turkey is the only Muslim country in NATO and a reliable strategic partner in a dangerous, combustible region. Of course Obama is being counseled not to antagonize the Turks; that's what his predecessor was advised as well.

But as we've said before when other politicians have caved to Turkish pressure, denying reality is not the solution. It's long past time for a genocide declaration, and Obama should get to it quickly. If it doesn't get done before April 24, it should be done soon after.

Another issue on which Obama seems to be backsliding involves the "state secrets" privilege, the legal doctrine the Bush administration overused and misapplied to have embarrassing cases thrown out of court on grounds of national security. Before the election, Obama criticized President Bush's repeated use of the privilege, but in a federal courthouse in February, when offered the opportunity to change positions and not invoke it in a case charging government torture, the Obama administration demurred.

We understand that being president carries great responsibility, and that when the director of Central Intelligence marches into the Oval Office with a file full of top-secret information and tells you that its disclosure could gravely damage the country, it's not so easy to say no. But Obama must not renege on his promises to increase transparency and to stop using the state secrets privilege to deny critics their day in court.

Then there's the issue of signing statements. Those are the legal documents that presidents sometimes append as they sign a bill to express their disagreements with it or to call for it to be implemented in a particular way. (Bush, for instance, issued a signing statement in an effort to undermine a congressional ban on torture.) As a candidate, Obama criticized Bush's overuse of such statements, and once in office, on March 9, he ordered his administration to reconsider each of the hundreds of Bush signing statements before assuming them to be valid. Just two days later, he issued a signing statement of his own in approving the $410-billion omnibus spending bill. To critics, that called his intentions into question.

It was not actually a reversal. Obama had never promised to do away with signing statements entirely, but merely said he would use them in a more cautious and restrained manner. Still, our view is that signing statements are almost always bad; if a president objects to a bill presented to him, or believes parts of it are unconstitutional, he should veto it. We're waiting to see what Obama does in the months ahead.

Obama also has been accused of reversing himself on the subject of detainees. While campaigning, he left many voters with the impression that he disagreed with the Bush administration's position that enemy combatants could be held indefinitely without trial. Yet this month, the administration announced that although it would no longer use the Bush-era phrase "enemy combatants," it still had a broad right to detain those who officials believe have engaged in "substantial support" of terrorism. Human rights groups were displeased.

Was it a flip-flop? Not exactly, though it certainly seems counter to the spirit of Obama's pledges. For the detainees, the change will be symbolic rather than substantive. But even in that semantic dispute, there is evidence of progress. Obama's new approach has changed the legal rationale underpinning the detentions: He bases them on the authority given by Congress when it authorized the use of military force after 9/11, rather than on Bush's expansive view of presidential power under the Constitution. That's a relief, for what it's worth.

We admire President Obama. We endorsed him. We're glad he's undoing some of the worst excesses of the Bush era. And given the problems facing the country at the moment, we recognize that he may not be able to accomplish everything he once promised.

But like all presidents, he will have to pick his battles. He must learn when to be flexible and when to hold firm on principle. His success will depend on how he makes those judgments, acknowledging politics but adhering to values.

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