President Obama's reluctance to investigate the CIA's Bush-era treatment of terrorism suspects — and his insistence that the nation look forward, not back — has long infuriated his most ardent supporters: those on the liberal left who view the president's inaction as electoral betrayal.
This week, it became clear that it will take more than a newly launched Justice Department inquiry into the CIA's post-Sept. 11 interrogations of terrorism suspects to convince those restive supporters that Obama has the political will to follow the facts wherever they lead.
"The inquiry is a good first step," says journalist and author David Sirota, who blogs at OpenLeft.com. "But my concern is not only how much effort it took to get a fact-finding under way, but [Obama's] comments about wanting to look forward.
"That suggests that the ultimate decision to prosecute anyone will be prejudged on political considerations," Sirota says. "He's essentially said that it's politically easier for him to say that we shouldn't look back."
Some liberal bloggers have been harsher, predicting a Justice Department "whitewash," and an end game that scapegoats minor players — and not the architects of an interrogation policy that allowed harsh techniques prohibited under international treaties governing the treatment of prisoners of war.
That stark skepticism has infected much of the progressive community, where activists who were once unshakable supporters of the new president have become increasingly disillusioned over what they see as his willingness to make political compromises on issues ranging from CIA abuses to the health care overhaul.
"It would be better," Sirota says of the national security issues, "if he proceeded with more confidence."
Push The Agenda, Or Pursue Alleged Bush-Era Misconduct?
Many in the progressive community say they understand the reality of Obama's political calculation. In his pursuit of an ambitious agenda, his strategy — to this point, at least — has been to avoid confrontation and an oxygen-sucking sideshow with conservatives who adamantly oppose the investigation into the CIA.
Many conservatives argue that the interrogation program worked, and that a "politically motivated" inquiry could compromise national security. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Holder's decision "poor and misguided."
This all comes at a time when polls show that Obama's standing with the public is in a swoon. His national job approval rating, according to Pollster.com's aggregation of national polls, has slipped to 49.9 percent, a new low, from about 57 percent in July. Recent polls have also shown that Democrats' support for the president, while still high, has slipped slightly. And a Gallup Poll released Monday showed that the percentage of Democrats surveyed who approve of the job Obama is doing has declined from 92 percent in mid-July, to 86 percent this week.
Bare-knuckled political push-back is to be expected, says Matthew Duss of the liberal Center for American Progress.
"We shouldn't kid ourselves: This has real serious political implications," Duss says. "It would be very, very darkly ironic if [Obama's] progressive agenda is stymied by the abuses of a previous administration."
He predicted serious costs to the overall progressive agenda if a wide-ranging investigation of the CIA goes forward.
That's the struggle faced by liberals who are as interested in health care and climate change legislation as they are in holding accountable the Bush-era architects of harsh interrogation tactics, Duss says. How do they balance the desire to pursue a full-on inquiry of Bush-era tactics with the desire to promote a liberal agenda going forward?
"As much as I want to see the previous administration held accountable for what I believe are serious offenses, I recognize that there are other things I want, such as health care reform, that would become much more difficult," Duss says.
His bottom-line question: "Can we ensure that [CIA abuses] don't happen again if people who were involved in it don't face consequences?"
Challenges Of Unraveling Leftover Policies
It didn't help Obama's standing in the liberal community that on the same day Holder appointed John Durham to investigate the CIA's interrogation tactics, the White House said it would continue the Bush administration practice of transferring suspected terrorists to other countries to be held and interrogated.
The administration said that the practice, known as rendition and condemned by human rights advocates, would proceed with more oversight.
"I think the Obama administration is having a hard time calibrating all of this," says Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of the New Democrat Network. "They were left a bad set of practices and realities by the Bush administration."
"The Obama team is finding that unraveling this is harder than they thought it would be, and they're trying," Rosenberg says. "But we're going to be having this debate a long time, and this [inquiry] is an important step."
That debate, he says, will necessarily involve how the country treated terrorism suspects in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Suggestions that discussion about what happened in the Bush era is either partisan or out-of-bounds is ridiculous," he says. "Laws may have been broken, and our standing in the world was affected."
"We need to have a conversation about this in our country."
That conversation may be one the president wanted to avoid, but it's one his supporters have insisted on. But many remain unsure of what Obama will do when the investigation is complete and when someone will have to decide whether and how to act on the facts.
The conversation then, Sirota predicts, will be much more subjective.