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The Shocking Pattern of Obama Repeating Some of the Worst of George W. Bush

Obama forged a continuation of the Bush years, doubling Bush's war in the Arab world, hiring staff from the Bush Administration, and tossing civil liberties aside for "security."

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His approach has been endorsed and will be continued -- though probably with less canniness -- by his successor Leon Panetta. Without a career in security to fortify his confidence, Panetta is really a member of a different species: the adaptable choice for “running things” -- without regard to the nature of the thing or the competence required. Best known as the chief of staff who reduced to a semblance of order the confusion of the Clinton White House, he is associated in the public mind with no set of views or policies.

3. Rahm Emanuel: As Obama’s White House chief of staff, Emanuel performed much of the hands-on work of legislative bargaining that President Obama himself preferred not to engage in. (Vice President Joe Biden also regularly took on this role.) He thereby incurred a cheerless gratitude, but he is a man willing to be disliked. Obama seems to have held Emanuel’s ability in awe; and such was his power that nothing but the chance of becoming mayor of Chicago would have plucked him from the White House. Emanuel is credited, rightly or not, with the Democratic congressional victory of 2006, and one fact about that success, which was never hidden, has been too quickly forgotten. Rahm Emanuel took pains to weed out anti-war candidates.

Obama would have known this, and admired the man who carried it off. Whether Emanuel pursued a similar strategy in the 2010 midterm elections has never been seriously discussed. The fact that the category “anti-war Democrat” hardly exists in 2011 is, however, an achievement jointly creditable to Emanuel and the president.

4. Cass Sunstein: Widely thought to be the president’s most powerful legal adviser. Sunstein defended and may have advised Obama on his breach of his 2008 promise (as senator) to filibuster any new law that awarded amnesty to the telecoms that illegally spied on Americans. This was Obama’s first major reversal in the 2008 presidential campaign: he had previously defended the integrity of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act against the secret encroachment of the National Security Agency (NSA).

At that moment, Obama changed from an accuser to a conditional apologist for the surveillance of Americans: the secret policy advocated by Dick Cheney, approved by President Bush, executed by NSA Director Michael Hayden, and supplied with a rationale by Cheney’s legal counsel David Addington. In his awkward public defense of the switch, Obama suggested that scrutiny of telecom records and their uses by the inspectors general in the relevant agencies and departments should be enough to restore the rule of law.

When it comes to national security policy, Sunstein is a particularly strong example of Bush-Obama continuity. Though sometimes identified as a liberal, from early on he defended the expansion of the national security state under Cheney’s Office of the Vice President, and he praised the firm restraint with which the Ashcroft Justice Department shouldered its responsibilities. “By historical standards,” he wrote in the fall of 2004, “the Bush administration has acted with considerable restraint and with commendable respect for political liberty. It has not attempted to restrict speech or the democratic process in any way. The much-reviled and poorly understood Patriot Act, at least as administered, has done little to restrict civil liberty as it stood before its enactment.” This seems to have become Obama’s view.

Charity toward the framers of the Patriot Act has, in the Obama administration, been accompanied by a consistent refusal to initiate or support legal action against the “torture lawyers.” Sunstein described the Bush Justice Department memos by John Yoo and Jay Bybee, which defended the use of the water torture and other extreme methods, in words that stopped short of legal condemnation: "It's egregiously bad. It's very low level, it's very weak, embarrassingly weak, just short of reckless." Bad lawyering: a professional fault but not an actionable offense.