In the presidency’s long march toward full-spectrum dominance over American life, the POTUS has become, among other things, host in chief of our national talk show. Barack Obama fulfilled that role better than most. Our 44th president never seemed more completely in his element than when trading zingers at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. We find it reassuring somehow to be reminded that the guy with the kill list has a sense of humor.
At the 2015 version of the annual press and pols confab, Obama got one of his bigger laugh lines when he joked: “Dick Cheney says he thinks I’m the worst president of his lifetime. Which is interesting because I think Dick Cheney is the worst president of my lifetime.” But the jibe had a funny-because-it’s-true element that Obama didn’t intend. As George W. Bush’s “co-president,” Cheney repeatedly described the team’s mission as “leaving the presidency stronger than we found it.” In that respect, Cheney and Obama have more in common than either would care to acknowledge.
As a young man, biographer David Maraniss reports, Obama developed “an intense sense of mission…sometimes bordering [on] messianic.” By the time the Oval Office was in his sights, he’d decided “his mission was to leave a legacy as a president of consequence.”
Mission accomplished: As Obama’s tenure comes to a close, it’s clear his has been a presidency of enormous consequence. But his most lasting legacy will be one few—perhaps least of all Obama himself—expected. He will leave to his successor a presidency even more powerful and dangerous than the one he inherited from Bush. The new powers he’s forged now pass on to celebreality billionaire Donald J. Trump, a man Obama considers “unfit to serve as president”—someone who can’t be trusted with his own Twitter account, let alone the nuclear launch codes. Perhaps only those incorrigible “cynics” Obama regularly chides from the bully pulpit could have predicted this would come to pass.
‘I’ll Turn the Page on the Imperial Presidency’
In his long-shot bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination, then–Sen. Obama ran as as a forceful critic of executive unilateralism—one, unlike the other leading contenders, untainted by past support for the Iraq war. A speech he’d given at an anti-war rally in Chicago in 2002 as an obscure state senator running for the U.S. Senate would become a key element of his sales pitch on the path to the presidency.
That speech, railing against a “dumb,” “rash” war, had barely registered at the time; in 2007, the Obama campaign couldn’t even find usable video of his remarks. “I’d kill for that,” chief strategist David Axelrod lamented. “No one realized at the time it would be a historic thing.” Still, the Obama team unearthed enough audio to hawk a cellphone ringtone “with ‘what I do oppose is a dumb war’ over a hip-hop beat.”
On October 2, 2007, trailing far behind then–Sen. Hillary Clinton in the polls, Obama delivered a major campaign address at DePaul University in Chicago, timed to mark the fifth anniversary of the “dumb wars” speech. “Five years ago today, I was asked to speak at a rally against going to war in Iraq,” Obama told the students. Yet Congress voted “to give the president a blank check” that left America “mired in an endless war.”
“We all know what Iraq has cost us abroad,” Obama declaimed at DePaul, “but these last few years we’ve seen an unacceptable abuse of power at home.…We’ve paid a heavy price for having a president whose priority is expanding his own power.” If elected, he pledged, he’d “turn the page on a growing empire of classified information” and “turn the page on the imperial presidency.” “It’s easy to be cynical” about politicians’ promises, Obama closed, but “I’m running for the presidency of the United States of America so that together we can do the hard work to seek a new dawn of peace.”
As a presidential candidate, Obama made clear that, along with “dumb wars,” he firmly opposed unauthorized wars. That December, in a candidate survey on executive power conducted by reporter Charlie Savage, Sen. Obama stated plainly: “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.”
As Obama gained on Clinton in the following months, she was reduced to carping: “I have a lifetime of experience that I will bring to the White House.…Sen. Obama has a speech he gave in 2002.” And yet that speech turned out to be instrumental to Obama’s winning the nomination, and thus the presidency.
Obama’s unlikely ascendancy culminated at Chicago’s Grant Park on election night 2008. The National’s “Half Awake in a Fake Empire,” the campaign’s semi-official hipster anthem, thrummed out over an ecstatic crowd of 125,000 as the president-elect prepared to take the stage. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time…tonight is your answer,” Obama proclaimed. “Change has come to America.”
The ‘Forever War’ President
“Shut the fuck up!” Obama reportedly exclaimed on the early morning of October 9, 2009, when press secretary Robert Gibbs woke him with the news he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize. In retrospect, it might have spared everyone a lot of embarrassment had Obama pulled a Bob Dylan and gone AWOL on the Committee. A week before the announcement, after all, Obama had ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, and by the time he hit the podium at Oslo to acknowledge the “considerable controversy” the award had caused, he’d already launched more drone strikes than George W. Bush managed in his two full terms.
In the years to come, the U.S. military’s “operational tempo” would grow steadily more frantic, as Obama surged troop levels to 100,000 in Afghanistan, launched two undeclared wars, deployed U.S. Special Forces to 85 countries around the globe, and tallied 10 times as many drone attacks as his predecessor. Over Labor Day weekend this year, while Americans stocked up on Bud Limes and burger rolls, their government launched nearly 70 airstrikes across six countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. As the end of Obama’s tenure approached, The New York Times noted, he was poised to become “the first two-term president to have presided over a nation at war for every day of his presidency.”
One fears he won’t be the last. Having knocked flat the remaining legal restrictions on presidential warmaking, Obama has cleared the way for all the “dumb,” “rash” wars future presidents might choose to wage.
Tomahawk Humanitarianism in Libya
Less than a year after his Nobel speech, Obama launched his first “war of choice,” against the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya. To wage it, Obama advanced the extraordinary argument that seven months of regime-change bombing was neither a “war” for constitutional purposes, nor did it even rise to the level of “hostilities.”
The Libyan war—or “kinetic military action,” in the administration’s preferred euphemism—would last “days, not weeks,” Obama assured Congress. But as weeks turned into months, it became obvious that America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies couldn’t finish the job without U.S. airpower. The Pentagon’s top lawyer, the attorney general, and the Office of Legal Counsel all told the president they saw no way around the looming deadline under the War Powers Resolution (WPR), which requires the president to terminate U.S. engagement in “hostilities” after 60 days in the absence of congressional authorization. So the president went to the State Department’s top lawyer, who came up with the legal cover he wanted.
In a report to Congress submitted 90 days after the war began, Obama asserted that since U.S. airstrikes didn’t involve “the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof,” the WPR’s limits didn’t apply. In plainer language: If you’re bombing a country that can’t hit you back, you’re not engaged in “hostilities.”
It’s a bizarre doctrine for a putatively humanitarian, internationalist president to advance: It’s not war if you’re only killing foreigners. But as U.S. remote-warfare capabilities increase, the precedent Obama set will prove useful to future presidents of any stripe.
One Congress, One Vote, One Time
So too will Obama’s extralegal expansion of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed three days after 9/11 and aimed at Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In the drone campaign and the war with ISIS, Obama completed a process begun in the Bush administration—the transformation of the 2001 AUMF into a blank check for globe-spanning presidential war.
By the spring of 2013, senior Obama administration officials were telling The Washington Post they were becoming “increasingly concerned that the law is being stretched to its legal breaking point.” That was before the administration stretched it still further, to provide legal cover for the war against ISIS that Obama launched in August 2014.
Given that the core group the AUMF targeted, Al Qaeda, had denounced and excommunicated ISIS, and given that the two were at war with each other, it was hard to see how a 15-year-old authorization could cover both. Still, “Congress in 2001 did give the executive branch the authority to take this action. There’s no debating that,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest insisted in October 2015, as the administration put boots on the ground in Syria. Even so, the proliferation of headlines like “ISIS Beheads a Dozen Men Accused of Fighting for Al Qaeda” or “Petraeus: Use Al Qaeda Fighters to Beat ISIS” might give one cause to wonder whether ISIS is the same enemy Congress authorized President Bush to wage war against in September 2001, back before Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPod.
The Droning Will Continue Until Morale Improves
“Ten to 20 years” is the standard, recurring answer administration officials give whenever they’re asked how long the various wars on terror will go on. It’s “going to be a generational struggle,” the Army chief of staff affirmed in 2015.
Get used to “ever-morphing enemies, an uncertain though expanding geographical scope, and an indefinite duration unlike any war in previous eras in U.S. History,” former Bush administration lawyers Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Waxman advise in a recent essay for The Washington Quarterly. By forging this “remarkable legacy of presidential power to use military force,” the Obama administration will empower future presidents to start wars at will and continue them beyond the WPR’s limits, at least in situations where few American body bags are expected.
The sort of military actions the administration prefers “take place largely in secret, largely from a distance, and largely without threat to U.S. personnel,” Goldsmith and Waxman write, which means they receive vanishingly little public debate or congressional scrutiny. But “light-footprint warfare” nonetheless has “large foreign policy, strategic, and reputational consequences for the United States, akin to much heavier deployments.”
Just Go Away Obama and go as far away as you can get and take your legions of loyal pathetic bootlickers with you starting with that ugly old cuss John Lewis
Vowing never to lose another rigged election again, these state rights must be destroyed
Why the strange timing whats in the pipeline?
What’s wrong with this picture? Approval of Trump Transition Still Low as Inauguration Nears.
The RCP Congressional approval rating average remains at 14 percent. Gallup has them at 19 percent.
On the bright side, there’s nowhere to go but up—unless they walk straight into an open manhole, of course.