A visibly weary Obama, fresh off a tough few weeks of playing defense against mounting allegations of executive overreach, approached reporters early Friday afternoon to respond to the latest scandal for a storm-tossed White House.
But first, let's recap. Our drones have shot and killed an innocent American teenager. Our IRS employees target those with opposing political views. Our courts nab the private data of Associated Press journalists, seeking out government leaks with alarming ferocity and shamelessly trampling across any notion of a free press; not stopping there, they searched the personal e-mails of one of the few journalists sharply critical of this administration.
And the last 48 hours have only gotten worse, as two seemingly-coordinated leaks have revealed that the government has been secretly collecting millions of call logs from Verizon customers, and exploiting court-ordered backdoor access to the servers of nine Silicon Valley giants to gain access to the private emails, chats, file uploads, and other data on foreigners abroad.
It would be a lot to claim that the President is capable of keeping tabs on each far-flung corner of our behemoth government — and certainly one or a few of this year's "scandals" have been overblown, headed by conservatives looking for blood, anxious to keep the White House defending its record rather than pushing its agenda. But surely President Obama is aware of the big things — especially considering he is a president who got himself elected by persuading a sea of young, naïve, war-weary millennials that things can be different.
But his words today are a powerful and unapologetic message, one nearly unrecognizable from the candidate we fell in love with six years ago: We get our secrets. You don't get yours.
"What you've got," Obama said today, "is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress. Bipartisan majorities have approved them. Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted."
Except that's not entirely true. The existence of PRISM, through which the government gained access to millions of Internet records, was a classified program briefed only to members of select committees, such as the Senate Intelligence Committee. So when it came time to make changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during December of 2012 — the provision that authorized PRISM — those few conscience-heavy senators could make only cryptic petitions to their colleagues that without revisions, FISA would leave a "back-door loophole" that could allow for the "warrantless searches for Americans' communications."
There were some members of Congress who knew about this — but those that did were forbidden by oath to tell the ones that didn't.
What Obama did seem to take seriously today — drumbeat — was leaks. "I don't welcome leaks. There's a reason why these programs are classified."
Obama is asking a people for their trust back, which is far harder a request than he seems to realize. The New York Times Editorial Board, which endorsed the President in 2012 and 2008, just today published a blistering opinion calling for transparency: "The administration has now lost all credibility on this issue. Mr. Obama is providing the truism that the executive branch will use any power it has given and very likely abuse it."
They continue, "To casually permit this surveillance — the the American public having no idea that the executive branch is now exercising this power — fundamentally shifts power between the individual and the state, and it repudiates constitutional principles governing search, seizure and privacy."
What the president seems to be avoiding is that his task right now isn't calming people down about a few surveillance programs (which, by the way, have been going on for years). It is reclaiming faith in a government that steals the information of its journalists, hunts down its critics, imprisons its leakers, and when necessary, sends Eric Holder to go do the little legal tricks he does so well — proving that actually everything is all right and dandy, and that we should all just be happy we don't have to be neighbors with terrorists.
And, when we get all riled up and start calling for transparency, honesty, respect, something … the President will calmly remind us that everything's okay. That this is actually just the price we pay for freedom, and can we all get back to our day already?
It seems that the 2007 Obama, the "no more National Security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime" Obama, is gone — replaced by a grown-up Obama who realized that keeping the American people safe as the commander-in-chief might require just that. He has aged, right into the shoes left behind by his predecessor, leaving a sea of disenchanted voters still half-heartedly waving our little hope and change flags, wondering if we'll ever again see the President Obama we used to believe in.
Wishing, at the very least, for a President Obama who's honest about the things he does — especially when they're the things he swore he'd never do.