I’m old enough to have watched President Nixon deliver many a speech in which truth took a vacation, yet I was naive enough to imagine that it was still in residence. Well, I learned my lesson. Decades later, when a president makes a national address, I assume that its primary purpose isn’t to announce substantive change but to spin a story.
So it was on Friday when President Obama gave a speech on N.S.A. abuses. As reported by Mark Landler and Charlie Savage in the NYT,
President Obama, acknowledging that high-tech surveillance poses a threat to civil liberties, announced significant changes on Friday to the way the government collects and uses telephone records, but left in place many other pillars of the nation’s intelligence programs.
Responding to the clamor over sensational disclosures about the National Security Agency’s spying practices, Mr. Obama said he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to phone records, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.
But in a speech at the Justice Department that seemed more calculated to reassure audiences at home and abroad than to force radical change, Mr. Obama defended the need for the broad surveillance net assembled by the N.S.A. And he turned to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves to work out the details of any changes.
David Rothkopf, writing in Foreign Policy (of which he is CEO), gets at the root of what most frustrates me about Obama: he has become just another “trust me” pol.
Few of the speeches President Barack Obama has delivered during his tenure in office illustrate his transformation from messiah to mediocrity, a middle of the pack president likely to fit in somewhere between Rutherford B. Hayes and Martin Van Buren, quite as well as his tepid, inadequate, and something-for-everyone but much-less-than-meets-the-eye speech on NSA reforms on Friday. At just the moment when the country needed the constitutional scholar who was bold enough to speak truth to power — the man who many of us thought we were electing in 2008 and then again in 2012 — we instead got the wobbly, vague, “trust me” of a run-of-the-mill pol.
The great flaw within the president’s remarks was not its inadequate details nor the issues it left unaddressed or punted off into an indefinite future. Nor was it the fact that he left the specifics of the implementation of many of the “reforms” to the judgment of many of the same folks who created the problem he was addressing. Rather the president, once again, sent the message that at least until he leaves office, he would like us to embrace the idea that personality is more important than principle in U.S. policymaking. In other words, he sought to reassure his supporters and critics (who are understandably worried about government overreach and the violation of civil liberties and wary of policies driven more by fear-mongering than prudent perspective), by more or less saying, “Don’t worry, I’m a good guy, I’ll make sure that all the big decisions that get made will be OK.”
Quite apart from the fact that wave upon wave of Snowden-fed revelation belies that argument, it ignores a central truth that the constitutional scholar should recognize. Our country was founded on clear limits being placed on the power of government because for all the generations of good and earnest leaders we may have or have had, our planet’s history and human nature tell us we must protect against those who might someday abuse their power.
The weakness of the president’s arguments shone through most strongly when he sought to pour oil upon the waters with the assertion that we, the United States, are not Russia or China. Talk about setting a low bar for a country that views itself as being a light unto the nations of the world. We aren’t, the president said soothingly, as bad as two authoritarian societies founded on the ideas that individual rights and liberties take a back seat to the needs (and whims) of the state and its bosses.
That pretty well captures it.
But hey, at least Obama closed Guantanamo. Amirite?
[Ted Rall’s January 17, 2014, comic]