As a young lawmaker defining himself as a presidential candidate,Barack Obama visited a center for scholars in August 2007 to give a speech on terrorism. He described a surveillance state run amok and vowed to rein it in. “That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens,” he declared. “No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime.”
More than six years later, the onetime constitutional lawyer is now the commander in chief presiding over a surveillance state that some of his own advisers think has once again gotten out of control. On Friday, he will give another speech, this time at the Justice Department defending government spying even as he adjusts it to address a wave of public concern over civil liberties.
The journey between those two speeches reflects the transition from the backbench of the United States Senate to the chair behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Like other presidents before him, the idealistic candidate skeptical of government power found that the tricky trade-offs of national security issues look different to the person charged with using that power to ensure public safety.
Aides said that even as a senator, Mr. Obama supported robust surveillance as long as it was legal and appropriate, and that as president he still shares the concerns about overreach he expressed years ago. But they said his views have been shaped to a striking degree by the reality of waking up every day in the White House responsible for heading off the myriad threats he finds in his daily intelligence briefings.
“When you get the package every morning, it puts steel in your spine,” said David Plouffe, the president’s longtime adviser. “There are people out there every day who are plotting. The notion that we would put down a tool that would protect people here in America is hard to fathom.”
And John Harwood followed at The New York Times:
In his first Inaugural Address, President Obama stirred liberals by proclaiming that “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”Harwood cited JFK and the missile gap, LBJ and Vietnam, and others.
Five years in, the presidency has taught Mr. Obama that the choice he rejected is not so false after all. Ever since the disclosures about the extent of National Security Agency surveillance, leading to the changes that Mr. Obama plans to announce in a speech on Friday, a chastened president has embraced “balance” between competing imperatives of security and civil liberties.
History shows that is what the Oval Office does to everyone who occupies it. The grinding reality of governing the country nearly always gives the lie to the facile, I-can-square-the-circle formulations that winning candidates carry with them into the White House.
Those formulations typically stem from candidates’ attempts to please all sides in contentious debates by acknowledging the concerns of opponents without surrendering their own principles. But it is rarely that easy.
A tour through recent history shows Mr. Obama with plenty of company.
On the day of the president's speech, law professor Jonathan Hafetz wrote at Politico:
We have seen this kind of response from Obama before, when he’s used the Big Important Speech to tackle major constitutional controversies. In his 2009 remarks at the National Archives, Obama affirmed his intention to reform Bush-era practices that he argued had undermined America’s security and values. Although torture has been eliminated from the country’s terror-fighting tool kit, the prison at Guantanamo Bay remains in use, as do military commissions and the imposition of indefinite detention. The speech nonetheless helped create the impression of broader change.
Last spring, Obama delivered a major address at the National Defense University focused on drone strikes. In it, the president spoke eloquently about the need to bring drones under control and the risks of a perpetual war on terror. Drone strikes, of course, have continued since the speech, albeit with somewhat less frequency and fewer civilian deaths than before, and the war on terror rages on. The speech nonetheless helped quiet concern over the drone program.
Today’s speech may prove less effective. While making the case that government surveillance is measured and lawful, Obama is nonetheless deviating in various respects from the recommendations of his own advisory group. Also, the specifics of key changes—including the collection of telephony metadata, which will continue in a different form—remain uncertain. Other changes depend on action in Congress, deferring rather than resolving controversy.