As Edward Snowden continues his flight from the grasping arms of the federal government, President Obama finds himself in the most unenviable position that can face an ostensibly idealistic politician.
He looks like a hypocrite.
When I made this observation in a panel discussion last week on HuffPost Live, moderator Josh Zepps correctly pointed out that I was in danger of begging the question. "You're presupposing that his position [on PRISM] is inherently hypocritical," he explained. "It may be that he's had a legitimate change of heart and that the boundary of where he thinks individual liberties should lie in a world where terrorists can get their hands on nukes has actually shifted more towards the security state model."
As Zepps explained, he was "all ears" to hear that case if Obama is willing to make it. While I fully agreed with that statement, I added that any presupposition about Obama's earlier position made by myself and the president's other progressive critics was entirely due to the president's own actions. As I put it at the time:
"If Obama made an alteration in his position at some point during his presidency, he should have articulated that at the time and made it clear to the American people that this was how he stood. So the perception of hypocrisy that exists, even if one's going to argue that it's rooted in a sincere shift in opinion on his part, is still his fault."
There is a lesson here for future political leaders, one that can be neatly divided into three parts:
1. Remember what you represent:
When Americans elect a leader, they are voting not merely for a resume and set of pre-stated political positions, but for a symbol. Although there were many symbolic themes interwoven into Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, one of the most prominent was its opposition to the excesses of the post-9/11 national security state, from Guantanamo Bay and the PATRIOT Act to the Iraq War and the growth of the military-industrial complex. While Obama has taken meaningful steps toward addressing some of these problems (and deserves more credit than he receives for this), his support of a program like PRISM betrayed the deeper principles that underlied progressive opposition to those specific issues.
2. Remember who you represent:
While it is entirely conceivable that Obama genuinely believed PRISM was necessary, there is no excuse for him failing to inform the American people at the time. The most commonly accepted excuse — i.e., that doing so would have jeopardized national security — is fatally undermined by the extent to which this type of reasoning has been abused over the years, most infamously in the run-ups to our bloody and costly wars in Vietnam and Iraq. More importantly, if a program that curtails our civil liberties can indeed be justified by national security considerations, there is no reason to assume that Americans can't be provided with just enough information to be aware of whether or not they want to support it without learning so much as to compromise its potential effectiveness. Claiming that decisions of this magnitude should be made without popular consent, or even knowledge, is an insult to the very notion of democratic governance.
3. Remember that today's politics is tomorrow's history. This means that you, like everyone else, must be constantly mindful of the role you're playing:
The Roman Stoic philospher Seneca summed this up best when he proclaimed that "Life is like a play: it's not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters." I would add to this that it is not simply the role in which one is cast, but the quality of one's performance upon being cast in that role, that determines the nature of the contribution one makes to the larger human story. In Obama's case, he asked to be cast in a wide range of very special roles: Inspiring symbol, first African-American president, first genuine progressive president in a generation, healer of the wounds inflicted by the Bush era ... and, as I explained in an earlier editorial, champion of civil liberties. While Obama clearly appreciates that it is an honor to have had these various parts assigned to him, he has failed to grasp the far more important truth, which is that he must continue to earn that honor every day. That doesn't mean that he can't reshape the parameters of one of his roles if he feels that circumstances compel him to do so, but it does mean that he must account for this when he does so. In the case of PRISM, it is entirely possible that the American people would have rejected his attempt to reconcile his earlier support for civil liberties with the alleged necessity of this program; indeed, many would have even insisted (as they're doing anyway now) that he had reneged on his earlier promises. That said, no one could have claimed that he hadn't at least been mindful of the role he had been assigned to play, regardless of how they felt about his success in actually playing it. His actions with regard to PRISM are hypocritical not because he failed to reconcile his avowed values with a policy that contradicted them, but because he never even tried.
Until more developments occur in this story, there is not much more to really say about all this. The man who became president as the foe of institutional evils now appears for all the world to be just another Big Brother, breathing down the neck of a whistleblower who exposed him to the world. With George W. Bush, at least, the world knew what it was getting all along. Barack Obama, on the other hand, claimed to be something different. The liberals who provided the lifeblood of his successful presidential campaigns will not be quick to forget this.