Gwen’s Take: The Trouble With Making (and Keeping) Promises

BY Gwen Ifill  May 3, 2013 at 8:00 AM EST


President Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Photo by Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images.

President Obama told a really funny joke after he strolled to the podium at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last weekend.

After noting that he was played on by a rap song in addition to the customary “Hail to the Chief,” he cracked: “How do you like my new entrance music? Rush Limbaugh warned you about this — second term, baby.”

The leader of the free world was suggesting that all bets are off in his second term. No more races to run. No more critics to please. Fasten your seat belts.

This, of course, could not be farther from reality. The week that followed his humorous turn yielded a constant stream of evidence to the contrary.

If you doubt that life has become only more difficult for Barack Obama, you need look only to three conflicts that show how complicated it can be for a president to treat his second term as if there is nothing to lose.

Syria

Less than a year ago, the president said it would be unacceptable to have a situation in Bashar Assad’s Syria “where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.” Then, last week, it became clear that something very close to that was indeed happening.

None of the alternatives are appetizing. Putting boots on the ground is a nonstarter. No-fly zones are more complicated, expensive, and labor intensive than they seem. Arming the rebels so they can overthrow Syria’s leader sounds appealing, but no one is completely certain the weapons won’t end up in the wrong hands.

So does President Obama get a pass on making a tough decision just because he’s in his second term? Of course not. We could detect the uncertainty in the president’s voice when he was asked about it during this week’s press conference.

“If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence,” he said, “then we can find ourselves in a position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.”

Rock, meet hard place. Here’s another:

Guantanamo

One of the first actions Mr. Obama made after he was sworn into office in 2009 was to decree that the Guantanamo Bay detention center — home to terrorism’s hardest cases — be closed. The idea was to employ the simple stroke of a pen to fulfill a promise he’d made repeatedly when running for president in 2008.

Once again, easier said than done. Not only does Guantanamo remain open, but it has now become a stubborn flash point, as dozens of prisoners protest their incarceration by staging a hunger strike.

The president broke his almost total silence on one of his most notoriously broken promises by pledging, when asked, to relaunch his effort to close the prison camp. Meanwhile, prisoners are being force-fed to keep them alive.

“I don’t want these individuals to die,” the president said with obvious frustration. “Obviously, the Pentagon is trying to manage the situation as best as they can. But I think all of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this?”

As with his other second-term sticky wickets, the president must wait on others to act. If lawmakers believe Guantanamo’s prisoners present a national security threat (and many do believe this), what would change their minds now? And how can the Obama administration convince other nations like Yemen to take their citizens back? There is no obvious shift in attitudes on either front.

Which brings us to:

Budget politics

The White House is walking a fine line here. It needs to prove that the across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect earlier this year are hurting the economy and should be reversed. But in pointing out the harm, the president and his allies must avoid looking a little too gleeful that flights are delayed, Head Start programs have been scaled back and housing vouchers have been slashed.

No one likes to hear “I told you so,” especially Congress. So the president has to continue his slog toward a grand bargain, pacifying Democrats and wooing Republicans. The people charged with executing his policies have to embrace good housing news and pray for better employment news. And when Washington grinds to its periodic halt — as it will — he must do the best he can to distance himself from the fray.

The list of dilemmas is long. Immigration reform is still possible, but it is not a slam dunk. Obamacare is law, but not universally embraced. Gun legislation is stalled, and it’s not yet clear that stirring the pot in lawmakers’ home districts will unstick it.

So welcome to your second term, Mr. President. It’s a good thing that rap music intro was played for a laugh.