Patterns in American History.


Andrew Sullivan has returned from his vacation to write a long -- and excellent -- blog post on the Obama administration's embrace of George W. Bush's "blanket secrecy and protection of the national security apparatus from the rule of law." Here is the core of Sullivan's argument:

The Bush executive is therefore now a part of the American system of government, a system that increasingly bears no resemblance to the constitutional limits allegedly placed upon it, and with a judiciary so co-opted by the executive it came up with this ruling yesterday. Obama, more than anyone, now bears responsibility for that. We had a chance to draw a line. We had a chance to do the right thing. But Obama has vigorously denied us the chance even for minimal accountability for war crimes that smell to heaven.

Way back in the summer of 2008, when I was a college student with a poorly trafficked blog, I wrote this about the odds that a President Obama would relinquish any of the power accumulated by President Bush:

It’s terribly unrealistic to expect any executive to willingly relinquish new powers.

To simplify things a bit, one of the more regular patterns in American history is the accumulation and expansion of executive power as it relates to national security, particularly during periods of crisis. During the First World War, Woodrow Wilson expanded on the powers accumulated by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and in turn, Franklin Roosevelt expanded on the powers accumulated by Wilson. A steady succession of Cold War presidents expanded on the powers accumulated by Roosevelt, and likewise, George W. Bush expanded on those powers. Granted, each period of executive expansion brought on a period of congressional backlash, but that backlash rarely went as far as to limit or reverse the expansion of executive power within the realm of national security.

For the most part, Barack Obama has followed the script; he has accommodated the post-Bush status quo by consolidating and protecting the core aspects of Bush's approach to national security. As I wrote in the month following Obama's inauguration, it's not exactly a surprise that "the Obama administration isn’t too keen on completely rejecting Bush’s expansions of executive power." When George W. Bush left office, his parting gift to the next president was a wide range of national-security powers. At the risk of sounding a little glib, it should have been assumed from the outset that Obama -- as a powerful actor with an agenda to pursue -- would do as much as possible to preserve those powers.

As far as I see it, the real failure isn't with Obama; it's with Congress; for reasons political and institutional, the legislative branch has completely ceded its role as a check on the national-security powers of the president. That said, I'm not excusing the administration, but a picture of the history of presidential power is necessary to understand where Obama stands in all of this.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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