The First-Person Presidency

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Here are a few excerpts from President Obama’s speech on Sunday night about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

“Tonight, I can report . . . And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta . . . I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden . . . I met repeatedly with my national security team . . . I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action. . . . Today, at my direction . . . I’ve made clear . . . Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear . . . Tonight, I called President Zardari . . . and my team has also spoken. . .These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief . . . Finally, let me say to the families . . . I know that it has, at times, frayed. . . .”

Most of these first-person pronouns could have been replaced by either the first-person plural (our, we) or proper nouns (the United States, America). But they reflect a now well-known Obama trait of personalizing the presidency.

The problem of first-personalizing national security is twofold. One, it is not consistent. Good news is reported by Obama in terms of “I”; bad news is delivered as “reset,” “the previous administration,” “in the past”: All good things abroad are due to Obama himself; all bad things are still the blowback from George W. Bush.

Two, there is the small matter of hypocrisy. The protocols for taking out Osama bin Laden were all established by President Bush and all opposed by Senator and then candidate Obama. Yet President Obama never seeks to explain that disconnect; indeed, he emphasizes it by the overuse of the first person. When the president reminds us this week of what “over the years I’ve repeatedly made clear,” does he include his opposition to what he now has institutionalized?

Guantanamo proves to have been important for gathering intelligence; Barack Obama derided it as “a tremendous recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.”

Some key intelligence was found by interrogating prisoners abroad; Barack Obama wished to end that practice: “This means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of law.” “That will be my position as president. That includes renditions.” Renditions have not ended under Obama, but expanded.

In some cases we are trying suspects through military tribunals; here again, Barack Obama used to deplore the practice he now has adopted: “a flawed military-commission system that has failed to convict anyone of a terrorist act since the 9/11 attacks and that has been embroiled in legal challenges.”

Senator Obama complained about airborne attacks on the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands. President Obama increased Predator assassination attacks fivefold. He has killed four times as many terrorist suspects by Predators in 27 months as did President Bush in eight years.

In January 2007 — three weeks after President Bush announced the surge — Senator Obama introduced the “Iraq War De-escalation Act of 2007.” If it had passed, that law would have removed all troops from Iraq by March 2008. Obama derided the surge in unequivocal terms both before and after its implementation: “I don’t know any expert on the region or any military officer that I’ve spoken to privately that believes that that is going to make a substantial difference on the situation on the ground.” “Here’s what we know. The surge has not worked.”

Candidate Obama criticized warrantless wiretaps, in accusing the Bush administration in the harshest terms: “This administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not.” A disinterested examination of present policy regarding both wiretaps and intercepts would show no change from the Bush administration, or indeed considerable expansion of the use of these tools.

If one wonders why former President Bush did not attend ceremonies with President Obama this week in New York, it might be because of past rhetoric like this about policies Obama once derided and then codified: “I taught constitutional law for ten years at the University of Chicago, so . . . um . . . your next president will actually believe in the Constitution, which you can’t say about your current president.” George Bush did not believe in the U.S. Constitution?

In sum, Senator Obama opposed tribunals, renditions, Guantanamo, preventive detention, Predator-drone attacks, the Iraq War, wiretaps, and intercepts — before President Obama either continued or expanded nearly all of them, in addition to embracing targeted assassinations, new body scanning and patdowns at airports, and a third preemptive war against an oil-exporting Arab Muslim nation — this one including NATO efforts to kill the Qaddafi family. The only thing more surreal than Barack Obama’s radical transformation is the sudden approval of it by the once hysterical Left. In Animal Farm and 1984fashion, the world we knew in 2006 has simply been airbrushed away.

Times change. People say one thing when they are candidates for public office, quite another as officeholders with responsibility of governance. Obama as president naturally does not wish to be treated in the manner in which he once treated President Bush. Conservatives might resent Obama’s prior demagoguery at a critical period in our national security, as much as they are relieved that he seems to have grown up and repudiated it.

Okay, the public perhaps understands all that hypocrisy as the stuff of presidential politics. But I think it will not quite accept the next step of taking full credit in hyperbolic first-person fashion for operations that would have been impossible had his own views prevailed.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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