During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama often promised to dismantle much of the unitary executive power that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, claimed for himself in the name of fighting the War On Terror. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the way Democrats swept into power in 2006 and did nothing about this or with the more general concept of "absolute power" and its tendency to "corrupt absolutely" probably had reason to wonder and worry. Nevertheless, Obama talked a good game, and provided reason to hope for the best.
Hope, of course, is not a plan, but a plan nevertheless seemed to be emerging when Indiana University Constitutional law professor and former acting Assistant Attorney General Dawn Johnsen was nominated to head the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice. A fierce and fully-vested critic of the OLC memos that enabled the Bush White House to consolidate power, her nomination was seen as a clear sign that the Obama White House was serious about dismantling the unitary executive.
That lasted about a handful of days, however, as the Obama White House went about upholding just about all of those policies. During this time, Johnsen managed to have her nomination passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it foundered in the Senate, where it was subject to a filibuster.
The White House didn't do anything to press for her nomination, save for halfheartedly renominating her for the position in January of this year. Later, Obama bypassed the nominee logjam that the GOP superminority had constructed by making a bunch of recess appointments, but even with the clear and unobstructed opportunity to install Johnsen at her position, the White House did nothing.
And then, on April 7, Obama decided that he could just straight up order the assassination of an American citizen, which is something that even torture and unlimited executive power fanatic John Yoo thought was an overstep. So, surprise! Last Friday, the White House announced that Johnsen had withdrawn her nomination. The announcement was pretty anodyne, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that maybe Johnsen withdrew in abject disgust. (Feel free to email me, Ms. Johnsen!)
Anyway, I deem it fair to say that this is another example of the Obama White House pissing on the legs of progressives whilst declaiming, "feel the life-giving rains of change!" And that's bad enough but, as Adam Serwer observes, there's an even more insidious problem here:
The sad thing isn't that Johnsen would have made a fine head of OLC, which she would have. It's that being critical of former OLC attorney John Yoo is now an adverse career move for someone who wants to work at the Justice Department. (Even his apologists have to admit that Yoo exercised "poor judgment" in approving torture!) Now, believing that there are legal limits to what the president can do during wartime -- that the president can't, say, legalize torture -- is "controversial."
So that's the incredibly true story of how Dawn Johnsen was defenestrated through the Overton Window by Barack Obama.