Barack Obama is popular and trusted far more than his Republican rivals on all issues, including fighting terrorism. Yet he and Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, are locked in a public battle on terrorism policy and Mr Obama is losing. Sixty per cent of Americans say they are following this battle closely. Mr Obama even scheduled a speech on Thursday morning to vie with one Mr Cheney had scheduled. The former was soaring and idealistic, the latter pragmatic and homespun. Both were dazzling, if partisan. The debate is turning Mr Cheney into the de facto leader of his party. It is leaching resources away from Mr Obama’s ambitious agenda. How did this happen?

Over the eight years in which George W. Bush was the main spokesman for the war on terror, Americans grew used to hearing the case for it made clumsily and incoherently. Mr Cheney is different. The Chicago Tribune used to describe him as “smart, congenial and classy”. He draws much subtler distinctions than Americans are used to hearing Republicans make: between a “crime” approach to defeating terrorism and a “war” approach, between the “disgraces of Abu Ghraib” and the “lawful, skilful work” of CIA interrogators, between justice and vengeance.

Mr Cheney attacks Mr Obama’s position – closing the camp at Guantánamo Bay and forbidding coercive interrogation methods – as “recklessness cloaked in righteousness”. A discussion hitherto confined to left-leaning blogs has now entered the broader public. Americans start to wonder if the Bush administration’s anti-terror policy was as much of an outrage as they were led to believe. It was news to most Americans that the US had “water-boarded” only three people since 9/11 – including Khalid Shaikh Muhammed, the planner of the attacks and the self-professed beheader of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. No one has been subjected to such treatment for at least six years.

Mr Obama counters this vision with discussion of US values. “We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again our values have been our best national security asset.” He means constitutional values. His point is stirring, wise and largely true. But you should be suspicious when someone tells you that the right thing to do is also profitable. Having invoked these ideals against Mr Bush, Mr Obama cannot live up to them in a way that satisfies the activists in his own party most engaged with constitutional questions – particularly questions that involve due process and right to trial.

On Wednesday, Mr Obama had a meeting with civil-liberties activists that left many of them dissatisfied, because he tried to put forward a concept of “preventive detention”. As he put it in his speech the next day: “There may be a number of people [at Guantánamo] who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States …Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people.” Few politicians have been as honest as Mr Obama in exposing the contradictions of their own policies. But contradictions they are. If you hold people without trial, you violate due process. You have the Bush policy, diluted only by the passage of time.

Mr Obama has overplayed a strong hand. In a way that is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan, he faces a discredited opposition. The last administration made such a hash of things – particularly the economy and America’s standing abroad – that voters have stopped up their ears against them. It is this, not public gullibility or magnetic leadership, that turned Reagan and Mr Obama into “Teflon” presidents to whom no criticism sticks. But Teflon does not change fundamental public dispositions. In May 1981, Reagan proposed cutting Social Security benefits. Even in a climate of anti-government zeal, the Democrats clobbered him. The suggestion was repudiated 96-0 in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Mr Obama hit the rock of public opinion last week. The Senate, which his party controls, voted 90-6 against closing Guantánamo. The Democrats’ Senate leader, Harry Reid, explained that he did not want terrorists released in the US. “No one’s talking about releasing them,” said an incredulous reporter. “We’re talking about putting them in prison somewhere in the United States.” Mr Reid replied laconically: “Can’t put them in prison unless you release them.”

Bloggers snorted at the stupidity and cravenness of this remark and, in his speech, Mr Obama repeated the bloggers’ red herring that “nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal, supermax prisons”. But Mr Reid is right. Bringing Guantánamo prisoners to the US is safe only if you assume they will not receive a fair trial. In a system that guarantees due process, if you cannot charge a person or if a judge finds his interrogation unconstitutional, you release him. Mr Obama’s constitutionalism is underwritten by the Bush war on terror.

That is why Mr Cheney’s big push has been successful. It confronts Mr Obama with a Gordian knot that he dare not cut. A constitution that enshrines rights is an asset, but it does not come free. If it did, every country would have one. Eight years ago, Americans reckoned that some rights were worth trading for security. If they want those rights back, they will probably have to trade some security. That is the bargain. Until Mr Obama admits it he will be tangled up in an illogic from which no oratory can extract him.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. His book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West, has just been published

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