The Leadership Trait That Barack Obama and Dick Cheney Share

Though vastly different, both think more highly of their own judgment than any law.
obama cheney full.jpg
Reuters

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!

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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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