Amid change, there’s more of the same

Obama similar to Bush on tax cuts, wiretapping

In this Sept. 1, 2008, file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama speaks at a rally at the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee. For all the sweeping changes Obama has delivered, there also have been several similarities to the Bush administration.

? For all the sweeping changes that President Barack Obama has delivered, there also has been an ample helping of more-of-the-same.

The Bush policy of imprisoning enemy combatants in Afghanistan without trial? The Obama White House is OK with that.

The Bush tax cuts for the rich that candidate Obama promised to wipe out early? President Obama will let them run their course.

The Bush team’s claim of a “state secrets” privilege to avoid releasing information? The Obama White House has agreed thrice over, even as it reviews the policy.

Across the landscape of government, there are plenty of other instances in which Obama is staying his Republican predecessor’s course — at least for now.

Has Obama had a sudden change of heart or undergone a sea change in ideology? Hardly. He’s made a clean break with the Bush administration on all sorts of policies and more change is surely coming.

‘Troubling signs’

His holdover actions can be traced to a variety of factors: the practical realities of governing, the natural inclination of presidents to preserve their powers, the limits imposed by a tough economy and existing entanglements abroad, and the fact that it’s not always easy or desirable to turn around complex policies on a dime.

After all, he’s been in office not even six weeks.

In one case last week, Obama’s Justice Department seemed to be holding its nose as it tried to explain why it was continuing the Bush administration’s claim that telecommunications companies cannot be sued for cooperating with the government’s secret warrantless wiretapping program.

“The government is compelled to defend (the) statute as long as it can reasonably do so,” spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Some Obama supporters are nervous.

“There are some troubling signs that can’t be ignored,” Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote recently about Obama administration actions on secrecy, torture and abuse.

Some Obama critics are chortling.

“Here’s something President Obama’s biggest fans may need to hear: He’s just not that into you,” conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote last week. He pointed to the enemy combatant and state secrets cases, Obama’s decision to retain George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, and continued support for faith-based programs.

Stephen Biddle, an expert on national security policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it’s healthy that Obama is avoiding the mind-set that Bush adopted when he came to office with a reflexive ABC approach, short for Anything But Clinton.

“What we’re getting isn’t an administration that’s automatically rejecting everything,” Biddle said. “He’s trying to make these calls one by one on the merits.”

Just reality

Whatever his reasons, Obama has taken some supporters aback with a number of recent actions.

In one, the administration sided with Bush in trying to kill a lawsuit that seeks to recover what could be millions of missing White House e-mails from the Bush years.

Obama’s administration also echoed Bush in maintaining that detainees in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights.

In three pending court cases, it has invoked a “state secrets” argument or similar claims to avoid disclosure of sensitive information even as it conducts a wide-ranging review of what secrets should be kept. An appeals court ruled against the government in one of those cases Friday, refusing to stop a suit by the U.S. chapter of an Islamic charity.

Glenn Sulmasy, who teaches constitutional law at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, said Obama is simply shifting from campaigning to governing.

“It’s just the realities of executive power in the 21st century,” Sulmasy said. “When you sit down and see the threat of al-Qaida and the threats to national security and homeland security, this would be natural and normal for him to take such steps and measures.”

Biddle, the foreign policy expert, said that in matters of foreign policy, one president often finds himself boxed in by decisions of his predecessors that limit his options. There’s no unwinding what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.

That may be one reason FBI Director Robert Mueller said last week that when it comes to hunting terrorists, “there has not been a change in terms of our priorities. There is no one in the Bush administration or the Obama administration who wants another terrorist attack and the emphasis has remained the same.”

Beyond national security, campaign-trail calls for an early end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans vanished when the economy went into free fall. Nor is Obama inclined to force a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, as he hinted during the campaign that he might do.

Still, Obama won’t extend tax cuts for the rich, as Republicans want.