Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

To protect and serve

Despite his message of change Obama has been reluctant to give up the presidential trappings of power

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One year ago the world witnessed an amazing event: the election of the first black president in US history. The reactions in the US and around the world were amazing and unforgettable. Obama shone then like a beacon of hope, and everywhere people celebrated. He has now governed for two hundred and eighty nine days. What can we say about the style and substance of his presidency at this moment?

At his inauguration president Obama swore to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States.’ We expect that he will. But presidents also make unspoken commitments. One of the most important of those is to protect and defend the presidency itself. Each president feels a responsibility to leave the presidency as strong as he found it. Most succeed, but not all. Richard Nixon felt that a major failing of his was that he did not. Why do presidents feel this way, and what do they do to protect the office? The first thing is to ensure that whatever powers have accrued to the office during their predecessors’ terms remain when they leave. This explains a number of Obama’s actions that vex many of his supporters. He has not yet closed Guantanamo, and appears to be waffling on what to do with ‘enemy combatants.’

I suggest that this is because dealing with such people is a power the presidency has taken on and Obama, in his new role, will not want to lose the power. Similarly, his administration appears to feel differently about transparency than his campaign staff did. And he no longer is a major critic of the patriot act. Transparency is a noble goal, but it complicates governing, and re-election. Likewise, the powers available in the patriot act accrue to the president: giving them up isn’t good for Obama or future presidents.

Simply put he has a commitment to the presidency within the system of separation of powers and checks and balances created by the founders. They expected the branches of government to attempt to expand their powers and to resist the efforts of the others to do so. Most presidents have done just that. So will Obama. He is a progressive, and that shows in his legislative agenda. Health care reform is central to his administration, and he will achieve it by wooing centrists in his party and perhaps one or two on the other side of the aisle. He has modified but not abandoned Bush’s signing statement efforts. He will eventually make good on his pledge to end discrimination against gays in the military, but only when he has settled other major issues. He will increase transparency, but not so much as many would wish. He will choose his battles wisely, not waste his popularity unnecessarily, and leave the office as strong as he found it. He will achieve his progressive agenda, keep his oath of office, and his unspoken pledge to past and future presidents.

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John Books

is a associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas

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