PRISM Scandal: It's Time to Admit Obama is a Disappointment


"My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration."

So opens President Barack Obama's "Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies" listed right on the White House website. It is yet another example of what the last few weeks have wrought: President Obama in theory is far different from President Obama in practice.

As one scandal piles up after another — the Internal Revenue Service selectively targeting conservative groups, the Justice Department going after telephone records of Associated Press journalists, the National Security Agency's widespread surveillance of Americans' telephone and online activity — it becomes harder and harder for Obama to resolve the differences between his image and his actions. These revelations are symptomatic of the widening cracks in Obama's grip on America; the very fact that Obama's trustworthiness is being questioned so vocally now, even by his supporters, is as damning as any one of these scandals.

It is a cold admission that Obama's presidency has been a disappointment. It's undeniable that Obama was heralded in 2008 as something different, a departure from the eight years prior that disillusioned so many American citizens. They wanted to believe him when he admonished former President George W. Bush's administration in 2007, saying that it "put forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide." Yet Americans find themselves nearly six years later, listening to Obama as he tells them they "can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy" and that "[t]here are tradeoffs involved," the same tradeoffs he once promised them refuge from.

When Americans voted in Obama over Sen. John McCain, it was an electorate seeking reprieve from the militant America that haunted the first decade of the new century. Yet, as Conor Friedersdorf writes in the Atlantic, Obama is indeed the same sort of "hawk" his predecessor was, and to pretend otherwise is a "perverse" sort of purposeful ignorance. Friedersdorf lists off the highlights of Obama's foreign policy, including his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the 250 drone strikes ordered in Pakistan, in a catalogue "of aggressive actions that isn't even exhaustive." Indeed, in May Obama had no choice but to specifically call for a change in drone policy, after the strikes became too excessive to be ignored. Obama's presidency has done little but continue the policies he was elected to stop.

This isn't simply an airing of disappointment in a politician that went back on campaign promises. That is all too routine. But with Obama, it cuts deeper because he should have been different; he should have been, in his own words, a "change."

It's possible that the recent scandals ultimately have little to do with Obama. Perhaps he is just a president caught up in a system that would have come to this point with or without him. Yet that makes it even worse. Obama wasn't supposed to be another president in the system, but that increasingly appears to be the case. When he writes that "Openness will strengthen our democracy," I want to believe him, but recent events have taught me not to. And that's Obama's biggest problem going forward: slowly but surely, people are going to stop believing.