George W. Bush 2.0

    It was downright weird this week to hear Dick Cheney praise Barack Obama – an occasion long thought to be impossible, roughly akin to Charlie Sheen doing TV ads for milk. But seriously, folks, the ex-veep’s remarks on The Today Show made perfect sense. After all, President Obama in the national security realm has governed as George W. Bush 2.0, so naturally we should expect that Bush’s partner would pronounced himself pleased.Cheney, slowed lately by surgery on his ever-ailing heart, was previously pugnacious about Obama, slamming the new president as weak on terrorists, and seemingly implying that Obama would willingly deliver us in handcuffs to the clutches of al Qaeda. But that was in 2009. Now he’s saying that Obama has matured in office and manned up accordingly (although Cheney says it a tad condescendingly, as if patting the youngster on the head):”(Obama’s) early talk, for example, about prosecuting people in the CIA who’ve been carrying out our policies – all of that’s fallen by the wayside. I think he’s learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate. So I think he’s learned from experience.” He was then asked whether he still believes, as he did in 2009, that Obama is making America less safe. His reply:”Well, when I made that comment, I was concerned that the counter-terrorism policies that we’d put in place after 9/11 that had kept the nation safe for over seven years were being sort of rapidly discarded. Or he was going to attempt to discard them. Things like the enhanced interrogation techniques, or the terror surveillance program. They’d been vital from our perspective in terms of learning basic fundamental intelligence about al Qaeda, about how they operated, who they were, where we could find them. And we were able to put in place a successful policy that did prevent any further major attacks against the United States over all those years. And he campaigned against all of that. As I say, I think he’s found it necessary to be more sympathetic to the kinds of things we did.”Cheney is basically correct about Obama’s rightward journey on national security. The record speaks for itself. Candidate Obama promised “full accountability for past offenses” committed by the Bush team, but as president he has reneged. Candidate Obama knocked Bush’s military tribunals, but as president he is currently preparing to expand their use. Moreover, the Obama administration supports enhanced government surveillance of the Internet, prosecutes government whistle-blowers who release unauthorized information (with greater frequency than all previous administrations combined), and it has perpetuated the Bush policy that allows the National Security Agency to collect the domestic and international communications of U.S. citizens and residents.It has also sustained the Bush legal strategy of telling federal courts to take a hike – arguing that judges should be automatically barred from tackling any case where the government believes that “state secrets” might be compromised. And, in some cases, it has gone even further than the Bush team. In 2009, Obama’s Justice Department argued in a federal court brief that the government should never be held accountable, under any statute, for the warrantless phone surveillance that was conducted against Americans during the Bush years. Whereas the Bush lawyers never made the case for total “sovereign immunity,” the Obama team has done so, invoking that phrase.I also should mention the recent published reports that detail the Obama team’s desire to assassinate an American citizen linked to al Qaeda – Anwar Al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric born in New Mexico and thought to be living in Yemen, is reportedly named on a government hit list – but you get the idea. Obama has indeed earned Dick Cheney’s seal of approval (as well as praise from other prominent Bushies), an unforeseen development that can be read several ways, politically speaking.In one sense, this is a nightmare for the Democratic base. Obama’s embrace of the Bush war-on-terror agenda – the same agenda he once assailed as draconian – essentially means that the Republicans have won the long-running debate over whether the imperatives of national security should trump concerns over the infringement of civil liberties. Obama has sided with the former. It’s centrist bipartisan policy now.On the other hand, Cheney’s praise of Obama has removed a traditional weapon from the Republican rhetorical arsenal. During the ’12 election cycle, conservatives won’t be able to jerk the knee and slime Obama as “soft on terror” – not anymore, now that Cheney of all people has essentially vetted the guy. He also noted approvingly, during his Today gig, that Obama has been launching lots of drone attacks against the bad guys (more drones than Bush-Cheney ever launched, although Cheney didn’t specifically say so).All told, however, Cheney’s remarks are probably a wash. Barring a major terrorist attack on home soil, the ’12 election is likely to be fought on domestic issues. Some liberals have been vocally upset about Bush 2.0, but clearly their numbers are small – as evidenced by the bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, which has tracked a spike in Democratic support for Obama during the past month. In December, 76 percent of Democrats voiced approval; the new figure is 86 percent. The spike is probably attributable to the productive lame-duck session, the glimmerings of upside economic indicators, and perhaps his speech in Tucson. By comparison, the war on terror is fought out of sight and out of mind.But swing-voting independents tend to feel more comfortable about an incumbent who passes the commander-in-chief test. Cheney this week may well have helped Obama in his quest to occupy the middle. Which only proves, yet again, the old saw about strange bedfellows and politics.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.