President Barack Obama attends the memorial service for victims of the Tucson, Arizona, shooting, 01/12/11. (photo: Jewel Samad/Getty Images)
The signing was a moment that defined his presidency, thus far. The decision is itself a microcosm of the man and his method. In that moment, "who he is" was on full display.
It should be noted that the indefinite detention provisions contained within the NDAA are every bit as egregious and damaging to the republic as their critics lament.
Obama's strategy in opposing the homeland battlefield provisions, and his ultimate capitulation, were as complex as he is. To understand the capitulation it is necessary to not lose sight of the gamble. When Obama said that he would veto the bill if the indefinite detention provisions were not removed, he was taking a politically irrational, almost desperate gamble. The problem for Obama was that it was a gamble he was almost certain to lose; a risk no man focused on self interest would ever take.
Like all military spending legislation since Dwight D. Eisenhower's military-industrial-complex warning fell on deaf ears, the 2012 NDAA and its homeland battlefield provisions had overwhelming support from a Congress all too eager to fawn at the Pentagon's feet to avoid the vengeful wrath of conservative media enforcers. If that meant permanently damaging fundamental constitutional guarantees, so be it. They were only following orders.
The final Congressional vote tallies were as easy for Obama and his advisors to forecast as they were for his relentless critics. In the House it was a landslide: 65% voted to approve the NDAA and its indefinite detention provisions. In the Senate it was far worse: Aye - 93, Nay - 7. That presents some problems for a "president."
When George W. Bush said (and he appears to have said it on several occasions), "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it," he opened a window into his soul. He was a man who fully intended to get his way. Whoever or whatever the cost. It's difficult to say what Bush would have done if Congress had defied his will in overwhelming measure. They never did -- the stakes were always too high. Whether they feared or admired him, as an institution Congress always obeyed him.
So what would Obama do faced with a Congress who opposed him in unilateral measure? Would he respect or attempt to repress their will? To back away from his promised veto was a guaranteed political embarrassment. Yes, the homeland battlefield provisions were an affront to democracy, but to reject the will of a unified Congress is the stuff of which monarchs are made. Obama had two choices -- to conduct his affairs like an autocrat or like a president. They had the votes to override his veto. He had gambled against very long odds, and lost. However, let it not be forgotten that he gambled on the right thing, and accepted the political consequences. The curious thing is that Obama's opposition still remains.
The Cordray Affair
It looks like Obama has bought into Elizabeth Warren's vision for a viable Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). In this case, Obama got his majority from Congress. The CFPB was approved as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. It didn't matter to business-friendly members of Congress. Their mission is simple: block, thwart, stall Obama, Cordray, and the Consumer Protection Agency at all costs.
Obama defied them. He ignored their "Congress is technically in session ruse" and proceeded with a recess appointment of Cordray. It's actually a fairly bold move. Industry-obedient members of Congress are literally blathering about treason and constitutional transgression over a Consumer Protection Agency. It's all rather amazing. So in the Cordray affair, Obama seems a fairly willing combatant.
The XL Pipeline Demur
There are some really powerful players pushing really hard for a pipeline to be built from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. Really powerful, really hard. Believe it. There's a vigorous debate about exactly what Obama's "rejection" of the XL Keystone really means. (Note: My spell checker offered me "viperous" as an alternative to "vigorous." That would have worked too.) At any rate, while it's not clear whether Obama's rejection was a permanent blow to the project or a temporary tactical demur, one thing is clear: what Obama did do was something the oil industry did not want him to do.
Gone From Iraq?
The Obama administration's decision to pull the bulk of US forces out of Iraq is a step in the right direction, but not a full withdrawal by any means. In 2012 we will spend a projected 3.5 billion dollars to maintain the largest "diplomatic" mission in world history housed in part in the largest, most heavily fortified and militarized embassy on earth. Iraq, however, appears to be wasting little time in asserting its sovereignty. Iraqi security forces have begun arresting and detaining US security contractors at a prodigious rate. A practice sure to resonate with Iraqi citizens. Overall, Obama has made commendable progress on Iraqi sovereignty, but much more is needed.
So while Obama clearly does not bring the fire or oratory of an FDR or a Dr. King, and he does not win every battle, he appears to be pointed in the right direction and he is determined.