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Bush pushed the limits of presidential power

With Cheney's urging, he insisted that he had that right under the US Constitution, especially during wartime.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 14, 2009

George W. Bush, with Dick Cheney at his side, pushed the historical limits of White House authority.

Larry Downing/Reuters


The presidential legacy of George W. Bush is perhaps best expressed in four words: He kept America safe.

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Many legal scholars question President Bush's claim to unilateral power as commander in chief in the war on terror. And experts will long debate his aggressive approach to the fight against Al Qaeda – authorizing warrantless wiretaps within the US, secret kidnappings of terror suspects, coercive interrogation tactics, and military commissions with stripped-down legal protections.

But even Mr. Bush's harshest critics must concede that on his watch the country remained free of further terrorist atrocities following the 9/11 attacks.

The deeper question is at what price?

At the heart of the debate over Bush's legacy is a fundamental difference in outlook over what it means to remain faithful to the constitutional protections laid down by America's founding generation.

Critics say the Bush administration's expansive vision of executive power eclipsed the Constitution's mandated system of checks and balances. Some see the Bush years as lurching toward an imperial presidency, posing a direct threat to the essence of American liberty.

"The breadth of the theory that they were articulating is as broad as any theory of presidential power offered by any administration in history," says Gene Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute in Washington and author of "The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power."

Others disagree. "President Bush clearly had constitutional authority to make the military and counterterrorism decisions that he did," says Michael Paulsen, a constitutional scholar at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. "I can think of none of President Bush's actions that fall outside those categories of relatively clear commander-in-chief clause power."

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and administration advisers insist that their actions have been fully consistent with the Constitution.

Historical precedent for Bush actions

Every president since George Washington has sworn an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." But presidents have interpreted that sacred pledge in different ways.

Some read it narrowly, that the president must always act within the strict letter and spirit of the law and Constitution. Others viewed it more broadly, embracing a duty to protect the nation itself, even when specific actions might temporarily violate the Constitution or laws.

Abraham Lincoln interpreted his presidential oath as a pledge to preserve the Union and the government itself. In 1861 amid a mounting crisis over the possible secession of Maryland, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, a protection reserved under the Constitution to Congress.