In recent decades, the powers of the president have expanded and contracted. Richard Nixon famously summed up his views on what a president can and cannot do, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Of course, that remark came after Nixon had left office amid the disgrace of Watergate.
In Nixon’s aftermath, Congress clamped down on the powers belonging to a president, limiting how a chief executive could deploy the armed forces and which of its records should be open to the public, to cite two prominent examples. Those tight bindings slowly unraveled over the years until President George W. Bush’s administration early in the last decade. A longtime Washington veteran who had toiled in post-Watergate White Houses — Dick Cheney — was determined to reinstate the powers that left town with Nixon.
David Gergen, a TV commentator who has worked for several presidential administrations, told PBS’ Frontline program the restrictions left a mark on Cheney. “That was a pivotal moment in the education of Dick Cheney,” Gergen said. “Many of us felt strongly that the power of the presidency was threatened, that America could not lead in the world and couldn’t get much done in Washington unless you had a more effective chief executive. Dick came out of that absolutely committed to the idea of restoring the powers of the presidency.”
In his book, The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind writes that Cheney and others brought a new attitude to the George W. Bush White House. “The idea, simply stated, was to be unashamed, and unfettered, in the use of power, now that America finally stood alone as the world’s only superpower. Global accords on everything from greenhouse gases to international courts, many of which had long ago been designed and encouraged by the United States, now were seen as constraints, the threads binding Gulliver. Such agreements were for lesser countries. They were to be shaken off — which was what happened in early 2001 when the Bush administration took over.”
Following 9/11 and with strong encouragement from Vice President Cheney, the Bush White House argued for a freer interpretation of presidential power in pursuing terrorists. So the Bush administration asserted it had all the authority it needed to use indefinite detentions, warrantless wiretapping, torture and other programs aimed at defeating jihadists.
In 2006, when many of these programs had come to light, Cheney summed up his view, “I do think that to some extent now, we’ve been able to restore the legitimate authority of the presidency.”
As the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks faded from the memories of Americans, the public soured on the Bush presidency.
Enter Barack Obama. As a 2008 presidential candidate, the Illinois senator ran as a candidate who would turn the nation away from the path taken by the Bush administration. Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay, the Cuban island prison where terrorist suspects were warehoused. Obama vowed to create a better system for prosecuting those accused of terrorism. In short, Obama would clean up the United States’ bad reputation overseas.
In office, Obama made strides in altering how the world views us. However, on specific policy matters like closing Guantanamo, he’s failed.
And on another matter, Obama has ramped up the use of unmanned military drones to target people believed to be terrorists in the Middle East and North Africa. And while doing it, the president has generally guarded his actions against the prying eyes of Congress. A White House memo uncovered last week offers details on Obama administration guidelines for using drones to kill members of al-Qaida. The memo says al-Qaida and its affiliates pose such a threat that “a broader concept of imminence in judging when a person continually planning terror attacks presents an imminent threat.”
Translation: The rules allow a drone attack — even on a U.S. citizen — even if there’s no specific evidence that the suspect is up to no good at that moment. Secondary translation: Regardless of what a presidential candidate says while running for office, the view from the other side of the desk in the Oval Office changes one’s perspective.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at on Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.