The Leadership Trait That Barack Obama and Dick Cheney Share

Though vastly different, both think more highly of their own judgment than any law.
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How is it that President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared on Fox News Sunday defending the NSA's vast surveillance program, find themselves on the same side of so many highly controversial national security debates? They subscribe to different ideologies, belong to opposing political parties, and differ dramatically in background and temperament.

Their grassroots supporters are deeply at odds. They see America's role in the world differently, speak about it differently, and made dramatically different judgment calls on the Iraq War, perhaps the most consequential foreign-policy decision undertaken in the years after 9/11 (certainly the most costly). So what explains the once surprising number Cheneyesque national-security policies Obama has, by now, embraced?

There is, of course, no single explanation: policies adopted by the Bush Administration constrained Obama in certain ways, and everyone who heads the executive branch shares some incentives.

But I do think a significant explanation is underappreciated.

For all their substantial differences, Dick Cheney and Barack Obama share one leadership trait: they trust their own judgment so thoroughly, and value it so highly, that they recklessly undermine all institutional and prudential restraints on their ability to exercise it whenever they see fit. Indeed, like Kobe Bryant at the end of a playoff game, they both harbor a barely suppressed, supremely arrogant belief that behaving in this way is their responsibility, or even their burden.

Due to their many differences, this trait has played itself out in very different ways.

Cheney was vice president, a job with few institutional means of directly affecting policy. So he "approached the levers of power obliquely, skirting orderly lines of debate," manipulated the bureaucracy, "using intimate knowledge of its terrain," and "empowered aides to fight above their rank, taking on roles reserved in other times for a White House counsel or national security adviser." He understood that by staffing the Office of Legal Counsel with like-minded ideologues, he could substitute his own judgment for the rule of law as most Americans would understand it. On Iraq, when he didn't like the intelligence he was getting on Saddam Hussein's weapons program, he actively sought his own intelligence stream -- and then misrepresented the truth to the American people, substituting his judgment that we ought to go to war in Iraq for a hypothetical process whereby the decision would be made without the threat being hyped.

Lots of people see this arrogant, egomaniacal trait in Cheney, who is more open about his high regard for his own judgment calls, which he usually preceded with the phrase, "The fact of the matter is ..."

Seeing all the ways Obama is different, many miss the trait in him. But consider the evidence. Unlike Cheney, Obama doesn't believe, as a matter of longstanding ideology, that the executive branch ought to be far more powerful than it was in 2000. As a senator, he warned against the trend. True, he's embraced the powers given him as president, and expanded them in various ways. All the while, however, he's never stopped warning Americans about the perils of our present course -- most recently in the speech where he advised us to end the War on Terrorism. Perhaps this isn't a contradiction at all. Obama mistrusts these powers deeply ... except when he's the one empowered by them. When he's in charge, the stuff he warns about isn't sufficient reason for change. Hope in his person is enough (Obama would surely frame it as everything good about America being personified in him, but it all amounts to the same heavy-handedness).

Occasionally the shamelessness of it all comes out. Remember Scott Shane's 2012 Washington Post story?

Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.

Obama thinks it's important, under a not-Obama, to have institutionalized rules governing drone strikes. But he "placed himself at the helm of a top secret 'nominations' process to designate terrorists for kill." Judge, jury, and executioner for me, institutions and process for thee!

Obama thinks "it is illegal and unwise for the President to disregard international human rights treaties that have been ratified by the United States Senate," but decided that "looking forward" was more important than investigating and prosecuting torture, a binding treaty requirement. 

So long as others are in office, Obama regards the War Powers Resolution as binding law, and believes that "the President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." But legal and prudential standards, however genuinely praised, do not trump Obama's ad hoc judgment in situations like Libya, where he violated the War Powers Resolution.

And surveillance on Americans? Well, Obama "welcomes debate" on the tradeoffs between liberty and security -- except when Obama decides that significant legal interpretations and sweeping new policies should be kept secret, having already carefully balanced things himself. Debate is less important in the singular case in which the judgment of someone as wise as Obama can be substituted.

Do you see the similarity now? When it comes to doing whatever the hell one wants, or not doing it, due to legitimate constraints, Cheney's avowed preference and Obama's revealed preference are the same. In their own ways, they both subvert whatever it is that gets in their way. Obama thinks of himself as balancing lots of complicated factors -- and somehow it always comes out that he has to assume more power than he thought prudent when others were exercising it. 

What a coincidence!

Cheney and Obama both had apologists encouraging this arrogance in them, though in different ways. Cheney's cheerleaders argued for a powerful presidency, testicle-crushing and all. Obama's arrogance has been bolstered more by the pundits insisting that his decisionmaking prowess is akin to Reinhold Niebuhr playing 12-dimensional chess against Wile E. Coyote.

He is so wise, thinking dimensions beyond the comprehension of his doubters! We're so lucky to have him! 

In fact, many of Obama's decisions since taking office have been imprudent. His arrogant insistence on preserving his own ability to act as he pleases, in every circumstance, comes at a steep cost. Having maximized the prerogatives of the one man he trusts more than anyone on earth -- Barack Obama -- he's expanded the prerogatives of all the presidents who'll follow him, many of whom he won't trust. His shortsightedness has been irresponsible and discrediting.

Rather than correcting the "process" problems of the Bush years and the tendency to subvert the law, he has compounded them, and given them the veneer of bipartisan acceptance. Thanks to Obama, who had the chance to reverse it, Cheney's notion of the executive is winning. The U.S. desperately needs a leader who values institutions and law more than his or her own judgment. Or at least a Congress that isn't so impotent as to let the executive branch behave so arrogantly.

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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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