Analysis: Obama's agenda scorched in firestorm

Recently, it was discovered that the U.S. government has been collecting a massive database of telephone usage by millions of Americans. This created a firestorm that would be damaging for any administration. It is especially problematic for President Obama because it adds to the list of controversies he was already struggling to contain.

Susan Page
12:02 a.m. EDT June 7, 2013
USA Today

WASHINGTON — President Obama, meet the second-term curse.

Revelations that the U.S. government has been collecting a massive database of telephone usage by millions of Americans — citizens not suspected of any wrongdoing — created a firestorm Thursday that would be damaging for any administration. But it is is especially problematic for Obama because it stokes controversies he already was struggling to contain and reinforces criticism that has dogged him from the start.

Republicans have long depicted Obama as an advocate of a big, dangerous and overreaching government, back to the federal bailout of the auto industry he undertook during the financial crisis that greeted his first inauguration. That has been their fundamental philosophical objection to his signature Affordable Care Act, now just months away from implementation of its major provisions.

In recent weeks, it has fueled outrage over the targeting by the Internal Revenue Service of conservative Tea Party groups seeking non-profit status, and over the use of secret subpoenas and search warrants against the Associated Press and Fox News in Justice Department investigations of news leaks.

Now the headlines are focused on governmental monitoring that touches not just reporters but, apparently, just about anyone who makes a phone call. Thursday began with explosions over a story in The Guardian in London of a broad secret U.S. warrant for phone records from Verizon. By midday, Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein had confirmed the surveillance had been going on for years. By the end of the day, The Washington Post and The Guardian reported that a data-mining program targeting foreigners was tapping into such Internet companies as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.

All that overwhelmed the president's planned message for the day, and likely well beyond. (For the record, he had stopped by Mooresville Middle School outside Charlotte to promote his plan to provide schools with high-speed Internet access. Not that anyone noticed.)

And in a bit of timing that is at least awkward, he holds high-profile meetings in California today with President Xi Jinping of China — a government the United States has long faulted for its heavy-handed treatment of its own people.

Indeed, as a U.S. senator from Illinois in 2007, Barack Obama blasted President George W. Bush for sweeping surveillance of Americans in the name of battling terrorism — just the sort of justification that Obama officials were making Thursday.

Then, Obama called it "a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand."

"I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom," he said in a speech then. "No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists."

To be sure, Obama didn't launch the data-mining initiatives, which were started during the Bush administration, though he has expanded them. He had defenders Thursday ranging from California Sen. Feinstein, a liberal Democrat, to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican. "It's called protecting America," Feinstein said.

But his critics also spanned the political spectrum. "Is it just me, or is secret blanket surveillance obscenely outrageous?" former vice president Al Gore posted on Twitter. Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, an author of the Patriot Act that was used to obtain the court order, called it "excessive and un-American."

The scarcest precious resource for second-term presidents isn't political clout, which they demonstrate by joining the small fraternity of those who have managed to win the presidency twice. It is time — the time to pursue the agenda they choose before a scandal or foreign-policy crisis erupts, and before the next presidential campaign begins to consume all the oxygen in town. For former president Bill Clinton, the Monica Lewinsky affair ended his hopes of winning serious entitlement reform during his second term. Former president Richard Nixon found himself bedeviled with and eventually forced from office by the Watergate scandal.

Obama's plan has been to be able to win approval for and sign a comprehensive immigration bill in Congress by fall. He hopes to be able to negotiate a big budget deal that would curb the deficit and put Medicare on a firmer long-term footing before the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race seize the political world.

Instead, explaining and defending these surveillance programs — what they are, how they work and why he thinks they're needed — are about to take up a lot of his time.

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