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.

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.

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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.

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