The Dick Cheney Diversion

Next Monday, Barack Obama will mark his sixth month in office. While he remains very popular with the country that fell in love with him in 2008, some of the novelty is beginning to wear off. The latest Diageo/Hotline Poll records a nine-point drop in Obama's job approval rating, falling from 65 percent in June to 56 percent in July. Some of that is a natural decline in the popularity of a man who had to make the transition from political superstar to manager of one of the most desperate economic recoveries in recent memory. Obama went from being something historic to having to do something historic -- and that shift will cost you.

Much of Obama's success thus far is due to the last administration's unpopularity. Still looming is the question of how well Obama will fare when he could no longer ride the waves of antipathy toward George W. Bush. Luckily, just when he needs it, someone pops up to remind the American people why they should be thankful. This week, Dick Cheney reappeared in the media spotlight, thanks to his attempts to try to hide from Congress a plan to assassinate high-ranking members of al Qaeda. Details of the plan remain sketchy; it was classified and not operational. But the idea that Cheney was keeping secrets from Congress is so easy to believe that the nixed plan was suddenly huge news.

Congress learned about the plan when CIA Director Leon Panetta canceled it and revealed its existence to congressional leaders, who are now threatening to hold hearings about what they did not know (and how long they have not known it). If such hearings happen, or if the Justice Department launches its own probe into the allegations against Cheney, many of the contentious Bush-era policies will come roaring back into the spotlight. Even though some at the White House worry that a hearing may result in new reporting rules for the executive branch, Obama will only be helped by the heavy focus on Cheney's misdeeds.

The San Jose Mercury News captured the tenor of the outrage in an editorial this week. "While in the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney became the Rogue in Chief, sanctioning illegal spy and counterintelligence operations he kept secret from Congress," the editorial board wrote. "The extent of unlawful surveillance and unauthorized covert operations under the Bush administration still isn't known. Congress and President Barack Obama must unearth the details and reassert proper oversight to prevent future foreign policy blunders and violations of Americans' civil rights."

Having the previous administration under public scrutiny may be exactly the kind of distraction Obama needs as he prepares to battle Republicans over health care reform.

And that distraction is the last thing the congressional GOP wants. Desperate for some kind of coherent message going into the 2010 midterms, Hill Republicans have decided they will try to attack the president and Democrats on the economy. Given the economy's sorry state and the huge amount of money the administration is throwing at it, that may be an obvious strategy. But it's also a risky one, for a couple of reasons. People remember that Obama inherited a genuinely disastrous economic situation from Bush. Secondly, the economy may start to improve by the next election cycle, so the last thing Republicans need is Dick Cheney in the limelight, reminding everyone about the bad old days. Unfortunately for Republicans, that may be their inescapable fate.

Both Cheney and Bush are at work on memoirs about their days in power. Bush's is scheduled for release in 2010, followed by Cheney's in the spring of 2011. By that point, Obama will no longer be able to blame Bush and Cheney for whatever problems he faces. But having Bush and Cheney rehashing all the fun they had certainly won't hurt the president's cause.