Follow the Leader

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Beinart

How liberals fell in love with the imperial presidency (again).

The late American historian John Morton Blum begins his book The Progressive Presidents by describing a political gathering on a hilltop in Ascutney, Vermont, in 1967. The people assembled there are not radicals, but liberals: "good burghers -- respectable suburbanites." And they have come to oppose not merely the Vietnam War, but the toxin that lies beneath it: excessive presidential power.

Blum spends the rest of his book teasing out the irony: that once upon a time, to be an American liberal was to support "a strong presidency," the kind of presidency created by Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, the "progressive presidents" Blum admires.

Had Blum revisited his subject in 2007, he would have marveled at how well his thesis fared. By the late Bush years, people like the good liberals of Ascutney--now clutching lattes--were denouncing not merely the war in Iraq, but the new "imperial presidency" hatched in Dick Cheney's basement: the signing statements that altered the meaning of laws, the secret torture sites, the spying on Americans, the efforts to destroy critics of the war, the brazen lies. "George W. Bush has quipped several times during his political career that it would be so much easier to govern in a dictatorship," editorialized The New York Times in 2005. "Apparently he never told his vice president that this was a joke."

But today, the liberal admiration for presidential power that Blum memorialized is back. President Obama has claimed the right to kill American citizens involved in terrorism, and resisted subjecting his decisions to either congressional or judicial review. …