Does Obama Really Believe He Can Limit the Next President's Power?

Standards he sets within the executive branch to govern drone strikes won't bind the next person who orders them.
More

Over at Fox News, Chris Wallace and Brit Hume are musing about President Obama's aims on national security. What exactly does he hope to accomplish before leaving office in January 2017? Let's listen in:



Chris Wallace: It's been suggested that that's exactly what the president wants to do. He wants to leave a different national-security structure, different rules of the road, different limits, for the next president than what he inherited when he came in.

Brit Hume: Not only what he inherited, but what he made generous use of for the purposes of fighting this conflict. There's an odd quality, Chris, to this whole thing. And it its almost like he's saying with regard to the drone policy, 'We need something to stop me before I kill again.' You see that in his support -- on an unrelated matter -- of this shield law for journalists. He's carried out these oversteps in pursuing journalists who are doing their jobs. And now he says, 'We need a shield law,' as if to say, a law to protect them from us. I think it's peculiar.

I admit to being a bit puzzled myself, if for slightly different reasons. It's perfectly understandable to serve in a position, appreciate its power, and believe it should be limited by outside constraints, even when they'd constrain you. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both felt that way at times. If Obama feels that way about a shield law, good for him. And it isn't as if he personally approves every interaction the Department of Justice has with journalists. 

But something puzzles me about his behavior with regard to the War on Terrorism. It does sometimes appear, as Wallace suggests, that he wants to leave a different national-security structure to his predecessor that limits him or her more than Obama himself was limited in 2009.

Administration officials have said as much. A disposition matrix! Strict protocol for putting an American citizen on the kill list! That sort of thing. There was talk, before Election 2012, of Team Obama hurriedly developing changes just in case. 

So unlike Hume, I don't think it's "stop me before I kill again," so much as, "I trust myself with this power more than anyone. You won't always be so lucky as to have me, but don't worry, I'm leaving instructions."

Will anyone follow them? That's what I don't understand. Why does Obama seem to think his successors will constrain themselves within whatever limits he sets? Won't they just set their own limits? Won't those limits be very different? What would Chris Christie do in the White House? I have no idea, but I'm guessing that preserving the decisionmaking framework Obama established isn't what he'd do.

Does anyone think Hilary Clinton would preserve it?

Obama doesn't seem to realize that his legacy won't be shaped by any perspicacious limits he places on the executive branch, if he ever gets around to placing any on it. The next president can just undo those "self-imposed" limits with the same wave of a hand that Obama uses to create them. His influence in the realm of executive power will be to expand it. By 2016 we'll be four terms deep in major policy decisions being driven by secret memos from the Office of Legal Counsel. The White House will have a kill list, and if the next president wants to add names to it using standards twice as lax as Obama's, he or she can do it, in secret, per his precedent.

Some new John Brennan-like figure, with different values and a different personality, will serve as Moral Rectitude Czar.

Even ending torture was done by executive order. The folks guilty of perpetrating it weren't punished. Congress wasn't asked to act. (There was an ambitious domestic agenda to focus on!) So who knows what we'll get next, save for a new president who witnessed all the previously unthinkable things post-9/11 presidents got away with so long as they invoked fighting "terror."

The fact that every new president is likely to be a power-seeking egomaniac seems like too obvious a flaw in Obama's plan for a smart guy like him not to see it. So what gives? Is all the talk of limiting the executive branch just talk? But why even talk at this point, if so? He isn't running again. Yet if he really does think his office wields too much power, why is he putting in place safeguards the next president can and probably will undo instead of zealously trying to get Congress to act? Yet he does seem to be concerned. Here's Peter Baker reporting in The New York Times:

For nearly four years, the president had waged a relentless war from the skies against Al Qaeda and its allies, and he trusted that he had found what he considered a reasonable balance even if his critics did not see it that way. But now, he told his aides, he wanted to institutionalize what in effect had been an ad hoc war, effectively shaping the parameters for years to come "whether he was re-elected or somebody else became president," as one aide said.

Ultimately, he would decide to write a new playbook that would scale back the use of drones, target only those who really threatened the United States, eventually get the C.I.A. out of the targeted killing business and, more generally, begin moving the United States past the "perpetual war" it had waged since Sept. 11, 2001. Whether the policy shifts will actually accomplish that remains to be seen, given vague language and compromises forced by internal debate, but they represent an effort to set the rules even after he leaves office.

"We've got this technology, and we're not going to be the only ones to use it," said a senior White House official who, like others involved, declined to be identified talking about internal deliberations. "We have to set standards so it doesn't get abused in the future."

There's that same obvious flaw, but everyone seems oblivious to it. The standards you're setting? The next president can just change them. In secret, even! That's the problem with extreme executive power: It is capricious, prone to abuse, and difficult to meaningfully check. Does Obama think the next man or woman will just behold the wisdom of his approach and embrace it? That error, unthinkable as it seems, would not be without precedent for this president.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

This Short Film Skewers Hollywood, Probably Predicts Disney's Next Hit

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.

Video

The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In