There was a time when Barack Obama seemed more honest than Bill Clinton. While Slick Willie notoriously claimed he smoked pot but "didn't inhale," Obama candidly admitted: "When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently. That was the point."
Lately, I have not been so impressed by Obama's truth-telling tendencies. Three incidents last week vividly illustrated the president's Clintonian desire to have things both ways, even if it means insulting our intelligence.
Obama wants credit for using the American military to protect civilians and compel a regime change in Libya. But he doesn't want to admit that blowing up the government's forces and facilities counts as "hostilities," because then he would need congressional permission under the War Powers Act.
Last week Obama sent Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser, to explain this counterintuitive position to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose members were noticeably unimpressed.
"When you have an operation that goes on for months, costs billions of dollars, where the United States is providing two-thirds of the troops, even under the NATO fig leaf, where they're dropping bombs that are killing people, where you're paying your troops offshore combat pay and there are areas of prospective escalation," said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., "I would say that's hostilities."
The following day, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit was more receptive, accepting Obama's argument that Congress is regulating interstate commerce when it forces people to buy health insurance. But a concurring opinion highlighted another striking example of presidential duplicity.
Judge Jeffrey Sutton devoted half a dozen pages to rebutting the Obama administration's argument that the insurance mandate, which requires the Internal Revenue Service to collect a "shared responsibility payment" from Americans who fail to comply, should be upheld under the federal government's taxing power, thereby avoiding dicey questions about the limits of the Commerce Clause. Sutton was too polite to note that the president himself had indignantly insisted, prior to passage of his health care law, that the assessment was "absolutely not a tax increase."
Another unacknowledged reversal occurred on Thursday night (just before the long holiday weekend), when the administration released a memo that supposedly "clarified" its position on medical marijuana. Although Obama has promised to stop "using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," Deputy Attorney General James Cole informed federal prosecutors that "commercial operations cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana" for medical use are fair game, even when they comply with state law.
By contrast, an October 2009 memo from Cole's predecessor, David Ogden, said U.S. attorneys "should not focus federal resources" on "individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana." The Ogden memo listed criteria for prosecution, such as violence, sales to minors and sales of other drugs, that make sense only when applied to medical marijuana suppliers, as opposed to the patients and caregivers who the Justice Department now claims are the only people covered by the policy of prosecutorial restraint.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in May 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that the promised forbearance applied to people "dealing in marijuana." When Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., asked him about threats to raid "legitimate businesses" that supply medical marijuana, Holder said "that would be inconsistent with ... the policy as we have set it out ... if the entity is, in fact, operating consistent with state law and ... does not have any of those factors" mentioned in the Ogden memo. This position jibed with Holder's earlier statement that "the policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law."
So how does the new Justice Department memo address the blatant contradiction between prosecuting state-authorized medical marijuana suppliers and not prosecuting them? It assures us the two policies are "entirely consistent." That way, Obama can get credit for tolerance and compassion without being painted as soft on drugs. After all, he did inhale.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.