Obama as imperial president: Nixon would be proud?

Today, I read this piece in the FT by the ever-readable Edward Luce, in which he argues that, when it comes to national security, the US presidency is as ‘imperial’ as ever.

(The reference to Arthur Schlesinger’s forty-year-old theory of an excessively powerful commander-in-chief  transports me back to a brightly-lit library in Oxford: cramming for finals.)

The evidence below is certainly uncomfortable for we Obamafans:

Through his words, Mr Obama suggests he is reluctant to use his vast capabilities. Through his actions, he conveys the opposite. In January Mr Obama rejected the advice of his own panel of legal advisers to take data storage out of the hands of National Security Agency. The NSA is proceeding with a storage centre in Utah that can contain a yottabyte of information – equal to 500 quintillion (that is, thousand trillion) pages of text. To you and me, that means infinite. No other facility on earth will come close. It will be able to store every electronic trace of everybody’s lives.

Luce ends the article by suggesting that only Obama’s good-guy image distracts us from the fact that he’s as over-weening as someone like Nixon.

It’s hard to argue that Obama has moved a mile from the ideals that he began with: in fact I doubt the man himself would claim to have stuck by them.

This left me wondering why. What balance of factors cause a president – or indeed any head of state – to act in ways they wouldn’t previously have condoned… the influence of security advisers? Political pressures? Sight of generally unseen information about threats? Gradual weakening of will?


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