Barack Obama’s First Signing Statement


Gene Healy has a nuanced and informative look at Barack Obama’s first signing statement, including the ways in which it’s non-objectionable and one respect in which it seems troubling. As a bonus, you get to see that John Yoo is a huge hypocrite. In the interests of not being a huge hypocrite myself, I should say that it really is harder to look at these things when the executive issuing the signing statement is doing so in the advance of a policy that you think is correct on the merits. I don’t have a particularly strong view on the constitutionality of “Section 7050 in Division H” which “prohibits the use of certain funds for the use of the Armed Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions under the command or operational control of a foreign national unless my military advisers have recommended to me that such involvement is in the national interests of the United States.”

I do, however, have a strong policy view that this is mistaken. A President should, of course, take seriously the advice of subordinates regarding the interests of the United States. But there’s no reason he should rely exclusively on the counsel of “military advisers” regarding a decision that has large diplomatic elements. And even though I’m more of a realist than most commentators these days, I don’t see why you would want to entrench in law a concept as contestable as “the national interests of the United States” as the sole criterion for making an important decision.

Under the circumstances, what happens is that I’d like it to be the case that the president is right and this is an unconstitutional restriction on his authority—in effect making the commander-in-chief’s judgment subordinate to that of his subordinates in the military chain of command. And I think you could mount a decent argument to that effect. Still, “signing statements” in which the president just indicates that he may disregard the law because he doesn’t like it don’t seem like a very good way to deal with this kind of situation.