Editor's Note: This column is reprinted with permission of the Washington Examiner. Click here to read it at that site.
Rising Republican star Herman Cain got quite the shock last week when he learned about the powers President Obama claims in the name of national security.
"This is the first that I have heard," Cain exclaimed to his interviewer, The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf. "You're saying it's OK to take out American citizens if he suspects they are terrorist-related. Is that what you said?!"
When Friedersdorf explained, yes, that's Obama's position, a horrified Cain replied: "If you're a citizen, no, it is not right for the president to think he has the power to have you assassinated. No."
Sure, a presidential candidate like Cain should do a better job following the news, but his unscripted reaction was the only appropriate one for a limited-government conservative—a "gaffe" only in Michael Kinsley's sardonic definition: that rare occasion when a pol accidentally blurts the truth. The truth is that American presidents have more power than we can safely entrust to any fallible human being. That was so even before the massive expansion of presidential power that followed Sept. 11.
Civil libertarians once looked to this president to right the constitutional balance. But what Obama has wrought is the same old "Terror Presidency" with new rhetoric.
Gen. Michael Hayden, President George W. Bush's CIA director, notes a "powerful continuity" between the two administrations on national security powers. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney now grudgingly praises Obama for leaving most of the Bush framework intact.
In some areas, "44" has gone even further than "43." Bush claimed "inherent power" to attack other countries at will, but never fought a war without congressional authorization.
Our new "decider" launched a war in Libya without so much as a by-your-leave to Congress. "It's nice to have a neocon back in the White House," The Washington Times enthused as the Tomahawks began to fly.
Your mileage may vary, though—especially if you worry about domestic spying. Last week's Patriot Act fight, in which the administration leaned on congressional allies to quash debate, highlighted how much Obama has "grown in office."
"No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime." Obama promised on the campaign trail.
Yet the Justice Department's latest report to Congress shows record-high use of NSLs: More than 14,000 Americans had their records searched last year using this extraordinary legal device, which allows the government to demand sensitive personal data like phone and bank records without the inconvenience of judicial review.
Obama now wants to expand NSL authority to "electronic communication transactional records," possibly including users' browser histories.
Will these vast powers be abused? We may never know, given Obama's legal position that the "state secrets privilege" goes beyond protecting "sources and methods"—it lets him quash entire lawsuits, barring the courthouse door to citizens fearing their rights have been violated.
There's a strange disconnect in the talk-radio right's view of Obama: Apparently, he's a crypto-socialist with sinister designs on our liberties, yet it's vitally important that he have the authority to wiretap Americans at will and assassinate them while they're abroad.
Even thoughtful conservatives seem to imagine you can have a presidency that's unrestrained abroad and constitutionally confined within our borders—even though the war on terror has no fixed battlefield and foreign policy powers apply here at home.
However troubling you find the jihadist threat—lately limited to the occasional dud crotch-bomb—you should be uneasy about concentrating such vast powers in an office that can periodically be seized by a relative unknown with easy charm and burning ambition.
I worry that Obama has these powers; I worry even more that future presidents will have them as well.
Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008). He is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where this article originally appeared. Click here to read it at that site.