Obama, the Un-decider

The president’s approach to the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed New York trial offers something for everyone—and decisions on nothing. Obama may be the anti-Bush, Lee Siegel argues—but he’s failing to govern.

Lord Acton once wrote that in a political system’s success lie the seeds of its eventual decline. Lately, it seems that President Obama’s grandiose image of himself as a paragon of democratic virtue is hastening the process of democratic decay.

The Obama administration’s approach to the 9/11 trials is emblematic of what you might call Obama’s egalitarian faux-democracy, in which the illusion of responding to every side in a debate undercuts the democratic process of actually arriving at a decision.

Call it the American Idol style of governing—except that no possibility ever gets voted out of the competition.

Consider the way Obama is handling the trials. First, you have the president and Attorney General Eric Holder wanting to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men in a federal court in New York City. Then you have their stated policy of trying other accused terrorists before a military tribunal. Finally, there is Obama’s declared intention to hold some prisoners in detention indefinitely, without trial or tribunal.

Something for everyone, in other words. Mohammed’s trial in New York will please Obama’s base, those apostles of non-compromise who lay into every instance of political realism with the passion of undergraduates arguing about the death penalty into the dormitory dawn. They believe that a civilian trial will prove America’s open, democratic nature to the Islamic world—though the militant elements of the Islamic world despise America precisely because of its open, democratic nature.

Military tribunals for other defendants will pacify conservatives and liberals who feel that a civilian trial will grant foreign-born enemies the procedural rights of an American citizen; they will satisfy those who worry that technicalities might well result in an acquittal, along with those who decry the absurdity of Obama calling for a civilian trial and virtually assuring the public that it will end in a conviction. And they will appease the people who fear a civilian trial’s revelations of torture and state secrets. Indefinite detention will appeal to everyone else.

This illusion of national participation in his decision-making process, with the promise of a happy ending that excludes no one, has been Obama’s method almost from Day One. Call it the American Idol style of governing—except that no possibility ever gets voted out of the competition.

No one must feel marginalized by a tyrannical majority. Obama allows the responses of the public, and the political establishment, and the media to break down every issue into a million parts, so that the multi-faceted clamor outside his head ends up looking a lot like the multi-faceted way he considers the world from inside his head. And by the time a decision comes—and yet it seems that Obama has not come to a single consequential decision since his inauguration—some people will feel unsatisfied, but no one will feel defeated.

On the economy, there was Obama’s decaration of an ideal solution. Then came the results: The unemployed got a few sops, the homeowners got a few more, and the bankers got nearly everything. But everyone felt enough responded to that, with the exception of the hard-line Obama-haters, anger against Obama remains unfocused.

On health care, once again, Obama proclaimed his desire for an ideal solution, held himself aloof from the fray, and let the public, the media, and the politicians turn it into a World Wrestling match that made almost any sort of compromise a victory. On Afghanistan, the same process: The president might deplore the leaks that came from inside and outside his administration, but they dripped slowly, and from widely scattered places, just like the slowly dripping, all-inclusive way he appears to think.

Obama seems not so much to govern as to preside. And yet for all the prudent pragmatism of his style, he doesn’t seem merely to want to please everyone. He seems determined not to be held responsible for the displeasure he causes. In the end, Obama won’t be blamed for what will likely be the health-care bill’s substantial flaws. Instead, the transparency of the process leading up to the bill ensures that at every point where the bill seems to fail one constituency or another, a particular person or people will be blamed for thwarting Obama.

The 9/11 trials will be Obama’s greatest achievement in the practice of proclaiming a lofty ideal and then withdrawing from the ensuing ruckus and letting the chips fall where they may. The right gives him too much credit for standing on “left-wing” principles when they accuse Obama of wanting to use the trials to decimate conservative credibility in the area of foreign policy. Rather, he is going to use whatever the trials throw up to distract an angry and unhappy country.

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The media and political chaos that even defenders of a civilian trial admit will probably occur when the trials begin are an almost irrefutable argument against them. But Obama will not be persuaded to change his mind. Why should he? The trials could well go on for months, possibly right up to the midterm elections next fall. They will produce a daily reminder of Bush-era perfidy and incompetence, which will impart to Obama’s prosecutors an air of white-knight rectitude. The magnetism created by the trial, and amplified by the media—the spinoffs, the furious debates, the sidebars, the profiles, the interviews, the related stories!—will keep drawing attention away from the plummeting economy, from two overseas wars, and from a general national drift.

So unlike Bush! everyone will say. So fair and transparent! Except that Obama himself will now be using 9/11 as an artful distraction. Also for the sake of democracy, of course. Unless Lord Acton was right, and today’s "fairness" and "transparency" become tomorrow’s grim expedience.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.