President-elect Obama’s first appointments to the Justice, State and Defense Departments mark no radical change. Rather, they return to a centrist consensus familiar from the Clinton years. But pragmatic incrementalism and studied bipartisanship will do little to undo the centerpiece of the Bush/Cheney era’s legacy. At its heart, that regime was intent on forcing the Constitution into a new mold of executive dominance.
Obama enters the White House in a slipstream of forces that will hinder attempts to abandon this constitutional vision. He may be a careful constitutional scholar, but we can’t rely on Obama alone to reorient the constitutional order. It will be up to progressives to insist on fundamental repudiation of the Bush/Cheney era.
At first blush, Obama’s victory is cause for optimism. As a senator he roundly rejected the signature Bush/Cheney national security policies: torture, “extraordinary rendition,” Guantánamo and–until July–warrantless surveillance. Obama appointees like Eric Holder as attorney general speak unequivocally against these violations of constitutional and human rights (to be sure, in Holder’s case it was after early equivocation).
The most significant Bush/Cheney innovation was planted at the taproot of our Constitution. It was the insistence that the president can exercise what Cheney in 1987 called “monarchical notions of prerogative.” That he can, in other words, override validly enacted statutes and treaties simply by invoking national security. This monarchical claim underwrote not only the expansion of torture, extraordinary rendition and warrantless surveillance but also the stonewalling of Congressional and judicial inquiries in the name of “executive privilege” and “state secrets.”
The Bush/Cheney White House leveraged pervasive post-9/11 fears to reverse what Cheney called “the erosion of presidential power” since Watergate. Relying on pliant Justice Department lawyers for legal cover, it put into practice a vision of executive power unconstrained by Congress or the courts. It achieved what James Madison once called the “accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands,” which he condemned as “the very definition of tyranny.”
Radical change is needed to re-establish legitimate bounds to executive power. We must again place beyond the pale Nixon’s famous aphorism that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” But radical change–as early appointments and policy signals from the Obama transition team suggest–comes easier as campaign slogan than governing practice. And there are many reasons to fear a go-slow approach from Obama when it comes to restoring the constitutional equilibrium.
No matter how decent, any new president is tempted by the tools and trappings of executive authority. However tainted the Oval Office is now, Obama’s perspective will change dramatically on entering the White House. He is already reading more daily security briefs than Bush and beginning each day with a barrage of fearful intelligence, hinting at dangers that largely never materialize. Submersion in that flow of intelligence will wrenchingly change his sense of the world’s risks.
So Obama will be tempted to maintain Bush’s innovations in executive power. While the terror threat remains substantial, as the Mumbai attack shows, the Bush administration has left counterterrorism policy in tatters. We have no rational strategy for terrorist interdiction and prevention. Obama’s nominations of Robert Gates as defense secretary and Gen. James Jones as national security adviser suggest he is acutely aware of these deficits and of the Democrats’ perceived vulnerability on national security. Nor are terrorists the only threat that might lead Obama to reach for emergency powers: credit crunches and fiscal meltdowns can also prompt unilateral executive action, with consequences as sweeping as any national security initiative.