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When Obama acts like Bush

Obama's reaction to news that the CIA withheld information from Congress may reveal surprising similarities to his predecessor.

By / July 31, 2009

President George W. Bush speaks as President-elect Barack Obama looks over his shoulder during a meeting in the Oval Office, January 7, 2009.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/FILE

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Some days, Barack Obama has more in common with George W. Bush than he does with Nancy Pelosi.

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Wait, wait – hear Decoder out. What this means is: Presidents at times have more in common with previous presidents than they have with congressional leaders – even if those congressional leaders are from their own party and the previous occupant of the White House is not.

Institutional prerogative can trump partisanship. That’s a political notion the Founding Fathers would easily have understood.

Decoder was reminded of this Washington truism while reading about President Obama’s decidedly lukewarm reaction to news that the Central Intelligence Agency may have hidden information from Congress at the direction of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Of course, Obama was shocked, shocked that something like that might happen. OK, he didn’t say that. Nor did White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. What Mr. Gibbs did say was that the president believes Congress should be briefed in accordance with the law, and that CIA director Leon Panetta was trying to figure out how the situation came about. “I think that’s wise,” said Gibbs.

No calls for congressional hearings. No desire for appointment of a special prosecutor. None of the outrage shown about the issue by House Speaker Pelosi and various other Democratic legislative leaders.

One reason for the White House’s muted words is surely the knowledge that this whole looking-back-in-anger thing could polarize Congress, cause the GOP to close ranks, and generally get in the way of passing healthcare or energy legislation.

But it’s also possible that Obama does not want to get dragged into what might develop into a classic dispute between the executive and legislative branches of government.

Yes, there are laws that order the CIA to keep Congress informed. But there is some wiggle room in those, and if pushed, ex-Bush officials will surely raise the flag of executive privilege – the notion that under constitutional law the administration does not have to let that Nosy Parker of a Congress in on everything it’s doing.

President Nixon put executive privilege in a very bad light – those attempts to hide the Watergate tapes, you know – but Bill Clinton revived it. He claimed executive privilege in a number of instances. Some of those involved attempts to keep stuff out of the hands of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Of course, Mr. Clinton generally lost those battles before the US District Court in Washington.

The Obama administration would not be directly involved in any legal battle over the CIA’s withholding of information. That happened on Mr. Bush’s watch. But Obama, like all presidents, has a vested interest in preserving – and even increasing – the powers of the presidency. He might want to make use of them someday, after all.

(One final note: Remember, we are not comparing the actions or moral compass of Obama and Bush in any way here. This is about political science theory, as much as anything else. So please hold off on those nasty e-mails. And no, Decoder does not Twitter. Instead, we are perfecting our plans for NewsKu – stories written entirely in the form of haiku.)

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