Governing is tougher than campaigning

Once again the president is finding out how tough it is to back up the promises made during the campaign, including his often-avowed intention of disclosing Bush-era mistreatment of prisoners, when the responsibility for doing that falls directly on him. He had decided to make public the photographs of harsh dealings with prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to change his mind after hearing from military leaders.

This follows a decision not to prosecute CIA operatives who used and Bush administration counsels who authorized water boarding and other "torture" methods to extract information from al-Qaeda operatives, a move that angered the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, both of which were infuriated by his announced intention not to totally abandon the military commission concept for trying suspected terrorists, a reversal of his stated campaign promise.

But the responsibilities of office are always different from those of a candidate who can take positions that are ultimately unrealistic and do so without much consequence. He did this often in a campaign that focused heavily on the alleged transgressions of the previous administration and was weighted with promises of change in the conduct of the War on Terror as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His shift of policy on releasing the photographs came after top military leaders warned strenuously that releasing them would stimulate animosity toward their troops and would make pacification more difficult, not to mention the increased threat to American lives by inflamed terrorists and insurgents. The pictures would themselves be used as recruiting posters for radical Muslim organizations like al-Qaeda. They pointed out that the president already has ordered abandonment of such treatment and that he also had banned the use of torture during interrogations.

Left unsaid but clearly implied was the possibility that the release of the pictures also might stimulate animosity between the commander in chief and the military. The result of that could be a possible loss of faith in the young president’s decisions — a devastating blow to him politically and to the nation. So between solidifying morale and good will and satisfying a campaign pledge, he wisely chose the former. Besides, much of what was to be released already is public knowledge.

The fact is that the Democrats on Capitol Hill who have been fanning the fire over Bush administration actions badly need to get on with their agenda. Instead of concerning themselves with Obama’s ambitious list of initiatives, the last two weeks have been devoted to what went wrong in the previous White House. The majority leadership in both houses has been fuming about allegations that they knew about torture and decided to do nothing until it became public knowledge and presented them an opportunity for political gain.

The response at the end of the week by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who charged the CIA with lying about her knowledge of the use of water boarding, helped take up most of the congressional energy. Faced with the dilemma of whom to believe, the press merely turned to what it does best, sensationalizing the entire business and letting the chips, as they say, fall where they may. Most of the week’s news centered on that rumpus rather than on debate over the Obama domestic proposals. One longtime Hill denizen wondered aloud how Pelosi, third in line for the presidency, might act under similar circumstances should she ever inherit the Oval Office.

Obama is relying on his enormous popularity to smooth over the reversals from his pledges of a year ago. He apparently reasons that his approval ratings can withstand a jolt or two without much damage and that the public has little faith in attacks from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and former Vice President Cheney. That may be somewhat true but certainly not a sure thing.

Limbaugh has a large radio audience that seems to hang on every word no matter how outrageous. Cheney, meanwhile, has taken control of the conservative Republican banner, waving it at every opportunity in what seems to be an attempt to set the stage to blame Obama for any future U.S. setbacks in the War on Terror.

So how would you like to be president?

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)