Betraying the Idea of America

Barack Obama is beginning to disappoint. There's no doubt about it.

From financial regulation to energy policy, Iraq to health care reform, the President and his team are showing us what they're made of. And it's not pretty. At every turn, they've been choosing the achievable over the better angels of our national conscience.

As a practical matter, this has meant sometimes seeming cynical and hypocritical, or in the thrall of various industries -- by, for instance, delivering the appearance of legislative achievement while leaving core problems more or less intact. That, despite this country's strong urge to turn away from the past eight years.

This shabby performance is all the more dismaying because abandoning the Bush/Cheney years and all they represent is why Mr. Obama was elected in the first place. But in only his first year in office, the list of promising roads not taken is growing long; and the movement that swept Mr. Obama into office is beginning to appear to have been the triumph of hope over experience.

To choose just one minor offense: Under Bush/Cheney, credit card companies routinely gouged consumers with what can only be called despicable business practices, while regulators did nothing.

Among these: So-called "convenience checks" issued to credit card holders, which the companies could bounce if the customer's credit rating changed. The bounced checks generated fees to the banks, and further hurt the customer's credit. No loan shark would try that one.

So this past week, the federal Office of Thrift Supervision told one of the offenders, American Express Bank, to stop this underhanded practice, set up a fund to repay customers it had tricked, and pay a fine.

The fund? $1.5 million -- $160 per customer. No provision to restore their credit was announced. The fine? $250,000. You have to wonder if said loan shark would get that deal. But I'm sure American Express will take the lesson to heart: Last year, its net income was $2.6 billion.

The President didn't cut this deal. But it happened on his watch, and he gets the credit. So it's pretty disappointing to read that the Oval Office is drafting an executive order that follows in Dick Cheney's footsteps, by consigning some Guantanamo inmates to life in prison without trial.

The Oval Office is reportedly drafting this Executive Order because it fears that closing Guantanamo as promised will be tough enough, and that simply releasing these inmates will be make it politically impossible; so it's a way to finesse the problem. But it's a sad reflection on the meaning of hope.

The main reason for this mess is the Bush/Cheney contempt for the law: While many of the 229 prisoners still held in Cuba can be tried and released, somewhere between 90 and 130 can't be, because either the evidence against them is classified, or came from foreign intelligence agencies, or was extracted under torture. That sort of evidence can't be used in a U.S. court.

Are these last bunch bad people? Probably. But that didn't justify torture. Nothing does. Like John McCain said, this wasn't about them; it was about us. Yet torture them we did, and now we can't let them go -- because we tortured them, and therefore can't give them a trial.

This is right out of Kafka, but the reality is that nobody knows what to do with these people. And to be fair to Mr. Obama, he probably has information we don't, information forcing this decision in a direction neither he, nor most of us, want. But clearly, America can't just imprison people forever without trial; that makes a lie of everything America stands for.

The problem is that in eight years, Bush/Cheney did something all of America's enemies, over the last 200 years, failed to do: Soil the idea of America. No shining city on a hill is built on torture chambers. Unless we grit our teeth and resolve this, nobody, anywhere, will ever consider us anything but another bully of a country trying to get its way no matter what -- just like our enemies. America has to straighten that out.

Barack Obama has many fine qualities. But he is a politician in his bones. And this is a matter of high principle and cannot be finessed, compromised, or spun until people get tired of listening and turn away.

To do that betrays not only the hopes of those who placed him in office, and the blood and tears we have poured out to defend our hopes for the future of mankind; it betrays his own duty to himself. He must remember, as Abraham Lincoln said, that "...we cannot escape history....The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation."

When I raise the flag over my little patch of America this weekend, I'll be hoping President Obama remembers those words, and turns away from an act that can only be a blot upon his honor.