President Obama spoke this morning to discuss major policy initiatives regarding the handling of terror suspects at Gitmo, national security, and the need for transparency and the rule of law in government. It was a fantastic speech in both content and tenor, fairly discussing the actions and goals of the previous administration and contrasting those with his own administration’s actions and goals in dealing with the same problems. (If you didn’t get to hear it or see it, you can read the full text here.)

Obama rightly debased the rationale of the previous administration for many of the actions they took over the last 8 years, but he did so in a way that was not (to me at least) designed to inflame partisan passions. Rather, he presented this information as a way to cause us to reflect on what America is supposed to be, how it was designed by our framers, and how it can be so easily derailed by weak minded officials faced with problems too big for them to handle and hard nosed ideologues whose only goal is to exert unopposable power without regard to moral and legal right and wrong. Obama also spread the blame for the savage departure from American values and ideals of the last 8 years to all politicians left and right-for the truth of the matter is that we, the American people, were let down on all sides by cowardly politicians and even more cowardly bullies. For 8 years, our elected officials threw out their responsibilities of due diligence and oversight in favor of political posturing. The actions, and inactions, of those who held elective office during the Bush administration and helped create the national nightmare or did nothing to prevent the fall into the abyss, has caused this country great harm both domestically and abroad. The blame is shouldered equally, and recent partisan bickering only further cements this as fact, for those who protest to their own defense most loudly are likely also those whose actions may seem most detestable.

Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. And I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that – too often – our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And in this season of fear, too many of us – Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens – fell silent.

In other words, we went off course. And this is not my assessment alone. It was an assessment that was shared by the American people, who nominated candidates for President from both major parties who, despite our many differences, called for a new approach – one that rejected torture, and recognized the imperative of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” (Obama-5-21-09)

Obama has a tough road ahead. Calls from the left scream for investigations and “truth” commissions. Calls from the right demand an “end to persecution.” This balance is hard to manage while retaining the desire to right the wrongs of American governance. But again, Obama takes the right path, for he is the president, not the judge and jury of this nation. While recognizing the wrongs committed in our names, he also understands that to rectify those wrongs requires a return to rationality and legal principals that this country was founded on. It is not for the president to declare guilt or innocence or to demand trials for grevious wrongs done in the name of “freedom.” That is why we have a Justice Department and a court system and a Congress with investigatory powers. By promoting direct legal action, Obama would be unnecessarily politicizing what is in effect a legal matter, albeit one that goes to the heart of what it means to be America.

That is what I mean when I say that we need to focus on the future. I recognize that many still have a strong desire to focus on the past. When it comes to the actions of the last eight years, some Americans are angry; others want to re-fight debates that have been settled, most clearly at the ballot box in November. And I know that these debates lead directly to a call for a fuller accounting, perhaps through an Independent Commission.I have opposed the creation of such a Commission because I believe that our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability. The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. The Department of Justice and our courts can work through and punish any violations of our laws.

I understand that it is no secret that there is a tendency in Washington to spend our time pointing fingers at one another. And our media culture feeds the impulses that lead to a good fight. Nothing will contribute more to that than an extended re-litigation of the last eight years. Already, we have seen how that kind of effort only leads those in Washington to different sides laying blame, and can distract us from focusing our time, our effort, and our politics on the challenges of the future.

We see that, above all, in how the recent debate has been obscured by two opposite and absolutist ends. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: “anything goes.” Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants – provided that it is a President with whom they agree.

Both sides may be sincere in their views, but neither side is right. The American people are not absolutist, and they don’t elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security, so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty, and care, and a dose of common sense. That, after all, is the unique genius of America. That is the challenge laid down by our Constitution. That has been the source of our strength through the ages. That is what makes the United States of America different as a nation.” (Obama 5-21-09)

At the end of the day, it’s not just what he says that marks this president as a class above his predecessor, but the way he says it, and the way he understands his role in American government. Obama embodies the difference between being president and being presidential- a difference as marked as that between being the class leader and the class bully. Perhaps the juxtaposition of these two quotes is the best illustration of all.

“I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.” George W. Bush

“In our system of checks and balances, someone must always watch over the watchers – especially when it comes to sensitive information.” – Barack Obama

It’s nice to have a real leader back at the helm.

(cross posted at Bring It On!)