Since the story broke of the National Security Agency's questionable surveillance of Americans and details and revelations of PRISM keep pouring in, much has been made of President Barack Obama's apparent hypocrisy and failure to protect and uphold American citizens' civil liberties. Searching for an explanation for Obama's behavior, many have turned to his predecessor's administration for a comparative analysis. In particular, Obama's critics have been name-dropping former Vice President Dick Cheney as a model for the current president's scandals.
It is a tempting comparison to make — one that pits the failed heroism of Obama against the entrenched villainy of Cheney. But it is, ultimately, one that gives far too much credit to the individual, and fails to identify the true menace at play: the system within which both Obama and Cheney have been forced to work.
The Cheney comparison certainly isn't a flattering one, not when PRISM leaker Edward Snowden answers in a Q&A that "[b]eing called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American" and it's met with thunderous agreement across the web. Yet this is where Obama finds himself after weeks of scandals.
What's behind the comparison? At the most basic, it's Obama and Cheney's apparently similar record (or lack thereof) on civil liberties. Conor Friedersdorf, for the Atlantic, goes further and suggests it's psychological: "They trust their judgment so thoroughly, and value it so highly, that they recklessly undermine all institutional and prudential restraints on their ability to exercise it whenever they see fit," he writes. In other words, it is their arrogance that convinces both Obama and Cheney that they know what's good for America, even when its citizens don't.
Yet that argument seems to propose this arrogance is unique to Obama and Cheney among Washington elites. When Friedersdorf writes that "the U.S. desperately needs a leader who values institutions and law more than his or her own judgment," he places too much of his own faith in the "institutions" of Washington.
The sort of questions Obama now faces, like Cheney before him, are not limited to the contemporary era of politics and government; they harken back notably to Nixon, and even further back before that. The individual players in scandals such as Obama's PRISM are interchangeable. It is the system they work within — a government that is always in search of greater power, one that obtains that power easier with each new technology — that drives the behavior of Washington leaders and brings us to these affronts to civil liberties.
So when my fellow PolicyMic columnist Matthew Rozsa implores Obama to "[s]top acting like Dick Cheney," in actuality he's asking the government to stop acting like the government. Assigning responsibility to an individual president or vice president is a misreading of the persistent nature of these types of scandals.
This isn't a defense of Obama, and certainly not one of Cheney. I'll be the first to admit disappointment in the president. But it is, I believe, naïve to think any one leader has the authority or ability to stay the course in Washington, or abandon it. Obama's failure to his former-admirers is that he once represented a break from this political system, and has now been warped into the sort of thing Cheney represents. Perhaps Americans failed when they believed Obama could have done something different. There's a reason it seems like a perpetual erosion of civil liberties; the faces change, but the system stays the same.