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The Inheritance

I was mostly impressed with Obama's speech. He really does have a unique ability to reframe (maybe even reset) any debate in which he chooses to engage in a major, sustained way. I was particularly struck by his repeated linking of his policies to those of the late Bush administration. As Ben Smith notes, this is a good way of taking on his chief critic, Dick Cheney, who's trying to relitigate a number of the battles he lost in the second half of the Bush years. But I also think Obama is trying to portray a lot of these knotty issues as just one more mess from the Bush years he's been left to clean up. This passage in particular seemed to strike this tone:

I knew when I ordered Guantanamo closed that it would be difficult and complex. There are 240 people there who have now spent years in legal limbo. In dealing with this situation, we do not have the luxury of starting from scratch. We are cleaning up something that is – quite simply – a mess; a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my Administration is forced to deal with on a constant basis, and that consumes the time of government officials whose time should be spent on better protecting our country.

Indeed, the legal challenges that have sparked so much debate in recent weeks in Washington would be taking place whether or not I decided to close Guantanamo. For example, the court order to release seventeen Uighur detainees took place last fall – when George Bush was President. The Supreme Court that invalidated the system of prosecution at Guantanamo in 2006 was overwhelmingly appointed by Republican Presidents. In other words, the problem of what to do with Guantanamo detainees was not caused by my decision to close the facility; the problem exists because of the decision to open Guantanamo in the first place.

There are no neat or easy answers here. But I can tell you that the wrong answer is to pretend like this problem will go away if we maintain an unsustainable status quo. As President, I refuse to allow this problem to fester. Our security interests won’t permit it. Our courts won’t allow it. And neither should our conscience.

It's not an argument that can be boiled down to a bumper-sticker slogan, but it's not so complicated, either, and I think it's an effective rejoinder to his critics. He's basically saying, Look, we've got to do something so if you don't like my idea, come up with a better one. But we can't keep doing the same thing. It effectively puts the ball back in his critics' court.

--Jason Zengerle