Obama Won’t Abuse His Signing Statements Like Some People

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Santino, plotting. Photo: Getty Images

President Obama issued a directive yesterday that all his predecessors' signing statements — namely, those of President Bush — should be checked with the attorney general before being followed. Signing statements have been used by all presidents to declare opposition to parts of a law they were signing, but Bush expanded the practice as never before, and often in an effort to maintain or enlarge his own executive power — in essence telling Congress, "Here's a quarter, go call someone who gives a damn about your checks and balances." In fact, Bush challenged more provisions (about 1,200) than all other previous presidents combined. That's a lot of presidents. But while Obama effectively negated Bush's signing statements, he isn't disavowing the practice entirely; he retains the right to use signing statements "with caution and restraint, based only on interpretations of the Constitution that are well-founded." So is this hypocrisy, or a return to normalcy?

• Charlie Savage predicts that Obama's approach to signing statements may be geared toward flagging "minor constitutional flaws" in things like the omnibus spending bill that Congress is working on now. Though Obama is being criticized by Arlen Specter for not completely forswearing signing statements, Obama's position is "consistent with what he said in the 2008 presidential campaign." [NYT]

• Steve Benen believes Obama is simply "returning to constitutional and institutional norms that existed before 2001." [Political Animal/Washington Montly]

• Andrew Cohen says, "If you were hoping that the Obama team would come into the White House and aggressively undercut its own power it’s time to change dreams." But at the same time, Obama is expending "political energy undoing some of the legal and constitutional excesses of his predecessors." In short, Obama, "who is a lawyer, and who was a constitutional law professor, so far is acting like one." [Political Hotsheet/CBS News]

• The Economist contends that bringing back the line-item veto would help end any abuse through signing statements. [Democracy in America/Economist]

• Josh Gerstein notes that "as with other distinctions Obama has drawn with Bush, the new president is not making an entirely clean break — nor is he doing enough to satisfy some critics." [Politico]

• Michael Shear reports that some "former Bush administration officials said they could detect little difference between Obama's new promise and the standards the former president used when issuing signing statements on legislation." [44/WP]

• Damon W. Root points out that while Obama says it's "appropriate to use signing statements to protect a president's constitutional prerogatives," President Bush's "whole point was to protect the 'president's constitutional powers,' at least as he defined them. So what's to stop President Obama from doing much the same?" [Hit & Run/Reason]