Kathleen Hall Jamieson on George Bush’s Legacy

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Texas Monthly, in its March issue, polled what it calls “15 of the smartest people in the room – presidential scholars, best-selling biographers and White House veterans of both parties,” asking them about the legacy of George W. Bush and if “there is anything he can still do to change it.” Joining historian Douglas Brinkley, biographer Robert Caro, former Bush administration Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, and former Bill Clinton advisor Paul Begala in the survey is Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Jamieson believes Bush’s legacy will be his use of signing statements, the written documents presidents can issue when signing a bill into law. “He has used them to replace the veto, which represents a shift in institutional power and alters the relationship between the branches,” Jamieson told the magazine. “When a president doesn’t issue a veto until the sixth year of his presidency but nonetheless systematically takes exception to the legislation, that person is doing something different from what his predecessors did. Some observers view this as a healthy exercise of executive power; others view it as overstepping. I’m in the second camp.”

“What’s new in this president’s use is the displacement of the traditional veto for this alternative form.” Jamieson cites Sen. John McCain’s 2005 proposal to ban the torture of detainees which passed with a veto-proof majority. President Bush had already made clear his administration's views on the matter. At a meeting with the press and McCain, he spoke positively about the plan. Two weeks later, when Bush signed the bill, he attached a signing statement that was posted on the White House website. In the statement, Bush reserved the right to nullify the provision over which McCain and Bush had fought.

“He engaged in what I would call 'public embrace, private repudiation,’” said Jamieson. “…[H]ad Bush simply vetoed the bill, McCain would have had the votes to override it. That would have checked the president, as provided for in the Constitution. I think we will look back at this administration's decisions in fifty years the way we look at Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus. The signing statement is an assertion of presidential prerogative, and what makes it so intriguing is that it is largely an unaccountable power."

“We don't know when the war on terror is going to end. It could be like the Cold War; it could last a long time. If President Bush's successors continue to do this, it could be not simply an important legacy. It could be the most important legacy. It shifts your presumption of what presidents can do.”