Wednesday, November 13, 2013

American Presidents: Which Ones Abused Their Power?

I caught a snippet of a recent Marcy Wheeler blog post -- more on that later -- that spoke of the causes of potential decline of American hegemony, but what it awakened in me was a filter for judging Barack Obama's ever-shifting legacy.

This led me to review the legacy of recent presidents, say, going back to Truman, which includes those presidents in my lifetime. I'm not sure I know enough about each on the list, but it's a good line, so let's draw it.

Okay, let's back up and look at Barack Obama. Currently he's suffering a sharp drop in favorability ratings, brought on mostly by the disastrous rollout of his signature healthcare act, but I suppose also because of the on-going NSA scandal. I'm not ready to judge him on the healthcare rollout because it's very common for the U.S. to fail massively when attempting a new initiative, especially if large IT systems are involved.

So, looking rather at a simple frame of "abuse of power," how would we judge recent presidencies? Who has abused presidential power? For simplicity, let's assume that, if it happened on their watch, they're guilty.
  • Barack Obama: Yes.
  • George W. Bush: Yes.
  • Bill Clinton: No.
  • George H. W. Bush: No.
  • Ronald Reagan: Yes.
  • Jimmy Carter: No.
  • Gerald Ford: No.
  • Richard Nixon: Yes.
  • Lyndon Johnson: Yes.
  • John Kennedy: No.
  • Dwight Eisenhower: No.
  • Harry Truman: No.
Twelve presidents, five guilty of presidential abuse, seven not. How did I arrive at this?
  • Barack Obama: NSA, Guantanamo.
  • George W. Bush: NSA, Guantanamo, Iraq, torture, corrupt Dept. of Justice.
  • Ronald Reagan: CIA, Iran-Contra, Central American adventurism, Granada.
  • Richard Nixon: Vietnam, Cambodia, CIA, FBI, Watergate.
  • Lyndon Johnson: Vietnam (Tonkin Gulf).
John Kennedy might deserve an honorable mention because of the assassination of Diem in Vietnam, but I don't know off-hand the provenance of that evil deed.

In my view, the most corrupt presidencies have been Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush because their abuse of power was so extensive. Ronald Reagan's role in Iran-Contra was well-insulated and his legacy barely includes it, but I never bought that. It was successful PR, but that's all it was. Let's assume he knew exactly what was going on, and let's face it, it was a huge violation of U.S. law.

Nixon, well, everyone agrees there. As for George W. Bush, his presidency is a special case, being singled out as perhaps the most abusive. Between CIA black ops, black sites, torture, corruption of American law -- with the cooperation of the DOJ -- creation and development of Guantanamo as a law-free zone of massive evasion of both federal and international law, and, well, how far do I need to go? Bush/Cheney wreaked much havoc on our international reputation. And the essential infrastructure of our domestic and international surveillance system was built at their direction.

Here is where we come to Barack Obama, and here is where the fact that the American presidency does not easily relinquish powers once obtained has dealt a devastating blow to an otherwise laudatory American president. Simply put, Barack Obama inherited a growing surveillance state from George W. Bush and not only didn't control it but allowed it to expand, both domestically and internationally.

That fact alone is devastating, both to Barack Obama's legacy and America's international reputation. It's possible -- we can't know this now -- that the NSA "problem" gets ameliorated over the last years of the Obama presidency or simply fades from memory, like Reagan's amorphous involvement in Iran-Contra. Any maybe we patch up our relationships with our allies. But people with memories -- let's call them historians -- may not be so kind.

Count me, for now, among them. Abuse of presidential power has stained Barack Obama's legacy. He has a chance to clean it up in his last few years. But knowing how begrudgingly presidents relinquish an acquired power, I'm not holding my breath.

Footnote. One factor should be noted, and that's the effect of institutional momentum. Barack Obama may step into the presidency only to find that a powerful institution has established ways of "how we do things here" that he didn't anticipate. I'm not saying that men in black suits sit a president down and tutor him in the ways of the world, but institutions do tend to maintain themselves as leaders come and go. Bush/Cheney are an example of leaders who broke the mold, whereas as Obama may be an example of a mold breaking a leader. How one decides this, however, may depend on one's point of view.

There are factors, too, that presidents don't control. Obama did want to close Guantanamo, but a Congress controlled by his own party shut him down by not allowing funding for resettlement of prisoners to the mainland. So there's that to consider. Still, overall, it comes down to the leader. A Lyndon Johnson would have gotten Guantanamo closed. But Johnson perpetrated the Tonkin Gulf incident to create -- like Bush's WMDs -- a case for war. Johnson's forcefulness got him what he wanted and his diminished legacy is the price he'll forever pay for it, just as Bush will never escape his false WMD claim.

Also, I don't classify the use of drones as a presidential abuse of power. Military tactics in an age of asymmetric warfare may be viewed with distaste and even horror, but that doesn't necessarily criminalize them, regardless of one's abhorrence of military aggression. (Note: I'm a pacifist, but that doesn't mean the new realities surrounding asymmetric warfare shouldn't or can't affect our notions of right and wrong.)

Finally, one might have noticed that "protecting moneyed interests" was not included in the list of presidential abuses. Why? Well, when did presidents, with the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt and Howard Taft, not protect the wealthy?


  1. This helped me a lot with my senior thesis on checks and balances in the American government, thank you.

  2. The U.S. has to be careful when finger-pointing. The nation's many transgressions puts it in the-cheese-stands-alone category. Actions like:

    --during WWII and without any due process the govt forcefully interned Japanese-Americans and German-Americans, who had NOTHING to do with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Many interned were of Japanese or German ancestry perhaps, but they, their parents, and certainly their children were AMERICANS, born in the U.S. in exactly in the same manner as you and I, as millions of Americans, whose ancestors came here from England, Ireland, Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, India, etc., and BUILT the nation, its railroads, dams, farms, homes, communities, a thriving merchant class.

    --McCarthyism and the communist witch hunts

    --abhor slavery now (at least many do), but previously took to it like a duck to water

    --have the distinction of being the only country to use nuclear bombs on its enemies

    --dessimated the native people when settling the New World, breaking treaty after treaty, throwing those who survived onto reservations. Who to this day are one of our most impoverished communities.

    --still don't consider women equal to men, on the whole make less than men for doing the same job.

    And those are just for starters.

    We live in a very big glass house, should be ever mindful of that any time our govt wants to throw rocks