This power grab was not an accident. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was chief of staff for Gerald Ford following the Nixon resignation in 1974, saw firsthand the blowback of a once-neutered Legislative branch, which finally struck back after six years of an abusive Nixon Administration. While it was the burglary in the Watergate that did Nixon in, it was, in retrospect, one of the least egregious of his many assaults of the rule of law. Nixon oversaw a unilateral firebombing of Cambodia which killed millions of innocent civilians without receiving approval from Congress, the execution of massive spying on U.S. citizens such as ‚ COINTELPRO, was militant in his efforts to destroy his “enemies” and, as the famous Nixon tapes now illustrate, intentionally prolonged the war in an effort to win re-election.
His warped view of his own power was captured best when, on his first public appearance following his political downfall, he told David Frost, that “when the President does it, that means it is not illegal.”
After Nixon’s resignation – which prevented an inevitable impeachment by the Congress – the Legislature fought back and executive branch powers were scaled back by an increasingly defiant Legislature
New sunshine laws such as Ralph Nader’s Freedom of Information Act, were passed over Ford’s veto pen and Cheney, who had cut his teeth with a job in Nixon’s White House dealing with the fallout from Watergate, had a bitter taste in his mouth.
“In 34 years,” Cheney told Cokie Roberts in January 2002 on ABC’s This Week, “I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job … ‚ One of the things that I feel an obligation [to do], and I know the president does too, because we talked about it, is to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors. We are weaker today as an institution because of the unwise compromises that have been made over the last 30 to 35 years.”
But when Bush was elected in 2000, and the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred in 2001, Cheney went on a concerted effort to forever widen the powers of the presidency,
This scenario created at least two plausible alternatives for how the political powers of the executive may come to pass under a new administration.‚ On the one hand, given Bush and Cheney’s power play, the idea that the Legislature may try to scale back executive powers seemed like a real possibility, especially in 2006 when the war was the major source of discontent among Americans.‚ Indeed, 2009 had the potential to be 1974 all over again; and accordingly, Obama would take over an office in decline, as Ford did 24 years go.
On the other hand, as journalist John Nichols said in 2007, Bush could very well hand over extraordinary power to the next president, who would be hard pressed to willingly cede it away.
“On January 20th, 2009, if George Bush and Dick Cheney are not appropriately held to account this Administration will hand off a toolbox with more powers than any President has ever had, more powers than the founders could have imagined,” Nichols told Bill Moyer.‚ “And that box may be handed to Hillary Clinton or it may be handed to Mitt Romney or Barack Obama or someone else. But whoever gets it, one of the things we know about power is that people don’t give away the tools.”
Indeed, Nichols had it: “IF George Bush and Dick Cheney are not appropriately held to account this Administration.”‚ Despite Bush’s clear crimes against the Constitution (to say nothing of international law), a Democratic controlled Congress refused to hold him to account.
And so, Obama is handed the box – one of immense power in all facets of government, most notably foreign policy. If you combine this with new powers provided by the economic crisis, the near-super majority in Congress and the sweeping mandate Obama won in November and you have, as Yale constitutional Law Professor Jack Balkin said, “the most powerful president who has ever sat in the White House.”