President Obama’s lieutenants would love it if all the networks ran a crawl line at the bottom of the screen during news broadcasts that kept repeating: “The economy, health care, energy, education. The economy, health care … .”

Then there’s reality. Over the past two weeks, the past has ensnared the present, deflecting attention from Obama’s domestic priorities and raising issues that divide his coalition. We’re talking about torture as much as health care, military commissions as much as green energy, and Nancy Pelosi as much as Barack Obama.

In principle, the president is philosophical about this, but he is also frustrated. “The balance he wants to strike,” senior adviser David Axelrod said in an interview before Obama’s big speech on terrorism on Thursday, “is to solve the mess we found in ways that don’t trigger endless, backward-looking partisan battles that inhibit our efforts to get other things done.”

This may be reasonable, but Obama is caught between two powerful forces and two conflicting ideas. Republicans want to change the subject from their own party’s failures and distract from the progress Obama and Democrats in Congress are making on health care and cap-and-trade legislation. Their slogan might be: Bring on the past!

Many Democrats, in the meantime, are eager to hold the Bush administration accountable for its policies on torture and all manner of other things. Large numbers in their ranks, including human rights activists who met with Obama on Wednesday, are deeply unhappy with a series of Obama decisions. These include accepting some Bush approaches, notably barring the release of photos of prisoner abuse and continuing to use military commissions to try certain terrorism suspects. The complementary slogan from these Democratic critics might be: You can’t escape the past!

Characteristically, Obama tried to cut through all this with his Thursday speech. He tried to position himself between the two camps and turn it from a no man’s land into common ground. He presented himself as a careful balancer making “tough calls involving competing concerns.”

The fact that Obama had to give the speech at all reflects the administration’s realization that its initial efforts to put these issues to bed have fallen short. Why?

Led by Dick Cheney — who gave a speech of his own on Thursday — many Republicans believe that national security is still the Democrats’ greatest vulnerability. With little to say on domestic issues beyond attacks on Democrats for being “socialists,” many in the GOP still see the security issue as their best political card.

Democrats are obviously worried about this — witness the timidity of Senate Democrats on Tuesday (in the face of demagogic Republican pressure) in cutting the administration’s request for funds for moving inmates out of Guantanamo. Are Senate Democrats for closing Guantanamo or not? If they want to bar moving prisoners to the continental United States, where will the terrorism suspects go? Guam? American Samoa?

Obama explicitly answered critics to his right and critics to his left. He was unequivocal in laying the problems he faces at the feet of the Bush administration. “We are cleaning up something that is — quite simply — a mess,” he said and criticized the “fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue,” an indirect swipe at Cheney. He strongly defended his decision to close Guantanamo and insisted that the country could not “turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.”

But in passages not likely to satisfy his critics among civil libertarians, he again defended his decision to block the release of photographs of prisoner abuse, arguing that making them public “would inflame anti-American opinion” and endanger American troops. And while he pledged to try to use normal legal processes with as many detainee cases as possible, he said that there were some among them “who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people.” He added: “I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people.”

Obama’s detailed arguments showed that he now understands, as he didn’t even a week ago, that in the wake of the Bush-Cheney administration, the words “trust me” don’t work on national security issues anymore.

Obama clearly wants to put all these issues aside and get back to the economy, health care and the rest. “I have no interest in spending our time re-litigating the policies of the last eight years,” he insisted. But many others do, and even a good speech won’t stop them.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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