Say what you will about the Barack Obama presidency, but it's not boring. In less than a week he's made three decisive moves that give grist to anyone who wants to praise him or bury him — in other words, pretty much the entire country.
First, as reports showed terrible problems in the veterans' health care system, Obama accepted the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Then he traded five high-level Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for possible deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the only U.S. prisoner of war in Afghanistan. And then he released new Environmental Protection Agency regulations designed to cut carbon emissions 30 percent at existing coal plants by 2030.
The scale of the furors over Bergdahl, EPA and VA health care is in part due to their timing, five months before midterm elections. The reactions are magnified as well by cable TV and social media. But the core reason for the serial uproars is that these are real controversies with real consequences that will play out over months and years.
The VA mess, involving system-wide fraud, cover-ups and months-long waits for appointments, once seemed politically ominous for Obama and Democrats. But it's now been displaced by more divisive issues with less obvious solutions. Democrats and Republicans, perpetually competing over which party is more committed to veterans, are anxious to install new VA leadership and may even cooperate to pass bipartisan reforms.
Obama faces his own tests. Will he pick the right leader — preferably a forceful, inspirational turnaround artist from the private sector or the government? Beyond that, will there be more doctors and prompt appointments? Good or bad, the metrics will be easy to measure. Obama could even end up with credit for fixing problems dating back to the George W. Bush era.
The Bergdahl release is far more complicated, and bewildering in how it was handled. A Rose Garden ceremony with the parents of a soldier who was clearly disturbed, might have been a deserter, appears to have brought his captivity upon himself, and may have endangered his colleagues? The pomp was ill-advised and unnecessary. Of course, so were Bush's "Mission Accomplished" theatrics in May 2003, more than eight years before Obama brought the Iraq war to a close.
But public relations malpractice is not a hanging offense, and congressional pique over not being informed of the deal in advance is likely to fade. The administration says it has long discussed the possibility of a prisoner exchange with lawmakers, and in this instance needed to act quickly. What's more, some of the critics had been pressing the administration to work harder for Bergdahl's release.
There is potential peril in freeing five Taliban commanders. Like governors who pardon prisoners who later commit crimes, it's a judgment call that requires nerve. At the same time, however, the release puts Obama that much closer to his long-standing goal of closing Guantanamo and might improve the prospects for talks with the Taliban. The release also gives Obama tools for a permanent solution should any of the five misbehave. As he said in Warsaw, Poland, this week, "We have confidence that we will be in a position to go after them if, in fact, they are engaging in activities that threaten our defenses." Translation: "I have drones."
The EPA regulations supply new fodder for conservative and coal-state accusations that Obama is waging a "war on coal." There is also the potential for a profoundly mixed message should Obama approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport dirty shale oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. On the other hand, the day after the official EPA announcement, China announced its first-ever limits on carbon emissions, reinforcing the view that the United States should set a good example for other countries to follow.
And while the EPA announcement could make life difficult for Democrats running in coal states, it also offers the perfect way to stand up to Obama. As Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes told Obama in a new radio ad, "Your EPA is targeting Kentucky coal with pie-in-the sky regulations" that will cost the state jobs and money. "I approved this message, and, Mr. President, you'll be hearing it a lot more when I'm in the Senate," she says.
It would be ironic indeed if the EPA rules ended up helping candidates like Grimes prove their independence and keep the Senate in Democratic hands. It's one of many vivid examples of the risks, rewards and unintended consequences of choices by a president whose adversaries and even allies can't decide if he is too passive or too aggressive.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.