Not long after the story into the National Security Administration’s spying programme broke, US president Barack Obama insisted the issues raised were worthy of discussion:
“I welcome this debate and I think it’s healthy for our democracy. I think it’s a sign of maturity because probably five years ago, six years ago we might not have been having this debate.”
In fairly short order, a YouTube compilation appeared, showing Obama debating with himself as he matured. Flitting back and forth between Obama the candidate and the Obama the president, we see the constitutional law professor of yore engage with the commander-in-chief of today. Referring to the Bush White House, candidate Obama says:
“This administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not.”
Referring to the NSA surveillance program, President Obama says:
“My assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
Candidate Obama says of the Bush years:
“This administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we provide.”
President Obama retorts:
“You can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices.”
The notion that a president’s record might contradict a presidential candidate’s promise is neither new nor particular to Obama. And we should hope that politicians evolve as their careers progress and new evidence and arguments come to light.
What makes these clips so compelling is that they show not evolution, but transformation. On this issue, at least, Obama has become the very thing he was against. They’re not gaffes. These are brazenly ostentatious flip-flops. And regardless of how much they cost him, Obama has clearly no intention of taking them back.
Given that he is not only defending but escalating the very things he criticised the Bush administration for, the accusation that many have made that he is “worse than Bush” on this issue, and others relating to privacy, security and drone attacks, is not unreasonable. Obama’s administration has denied more Freedom of Information Act requests than Bush did, and prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined.
But the charge also misses the point.
It should go without saying that Obama the individual is responsible for all that he says and does. It should also go without saying that once he ascends to the Oval office he is no longer simply talking for himself, but, as commander-in-chief, for the state of which he is the head.
Just as one head of a chamber of commerce may be more or less hostile than another to the labor movement, but is ultimately charged with representing the interests of the business community, so Obama’s room for maneuver is constrained by the institutions in which he is now embedded.
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