In a television interview a few months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney described a sense of obligation he shared with President Bush. The two men wanted, Mr. Cheney said, “to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors.”
Mr. Cheney wasn’t talking about the furniture. He was talking about power.
Critics and supporters of the Bush administration can debate whether particular aspects of its efforts to combat terrorism have altered the balance between national security and civil liberties too far in one direction or the other. What almost no one disputes is that a central legacy of the Bush presidency will be its distinctively muscular vision of executive power.
A year from now, Mr. Bush’s successor will have to decide whether to accept and perhaps build on that vision or — and this is never an easy matter where power is involved — to relinquish parts of it.
The next president will most likely have to decide what to do with the hundreds of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, some of whom have spent six years there and none of whom have been tried for a crime.
Other defining questions for the next president: How far may military and intelligence interrogators go to extract information? When is it acceptable to send people suspected of terrorism to countries that are known to use torture?
What amounts to “material support” of terrorism? May American citizens be held by the military indefinitely and without charge based only on an executive branch determination that they are “enemy combatants?”
And when may the government intercept the communications of people in the United States without a court warrant?
Important as the Bush administration’s answers to these questions have been, the larger issue left behind is one of constitutional theory. May the president go it alone in deciding what is necessary to protect the safety of the nation?
By the historical standards of wartime presidencies, the Bush administration has not taken especially radical steps in curbing the civil liberties of citizens. But Mr. Bush has proceeded alone even when Congressional authorization was almost certainly available, and he has insisted that the need for secrecy makes judicial oversight and public debate impossible.
Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush have surely succeeded in strengthening the power of their offices. But it is not certain that their successors will embrace every part of the legacy that awaits them.