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The NSA Scandal Was Good for Obama

While no one was watching, the snooping story muscled all those other controversies out of the way

The story about extensive National Security Agency monitoring of electronic communications blew through Washington with hurricane force. And, like a hurricane, it fully consumed the attention of just about everybody who fell within its path. Oh, sure, there was a little gang huddling over here working on immigration issues and another one over there fretting about the Syrian rebels, but mostly people were coping with the storm.

Admittedly, attention spans in Washington, as anywhere else, are limited, and there’s only so much room in the in-box. But usually the capital’s politico-journalistic complex is able to walk and chew gum and do three or four other things at the same time. With the NSA story, not so much. There was too much there there. First came the questions about what the NSA was really up to. Next were the questions about who knew what and on whose authority the snooping was taking place. Then came the person of leaker Edward Snowden and broader questions about the motives of whistleblowers and the morality of leaks. Finally, there was the whole question of the legality and wisdom of the program.

In the storm’s initial surge, one could be forgiven for wondering how much devastation it would wreak on the Obama administration, following as it did on a spring dominated by talk of scandals: the administration’s shifting account of what happened in Benghazi; the IRS targeting conservative groups for special scrutiny; the Justice Department’s paging through journalists’ email in-boxes and phone records. But something strange happened as the tempest passed through: The other Obama scandals seem to have been swept out to sea by the storm, or at least have been rendered profoundly waterlogged. Their capacity to inflict political damage on the administration seems much diminished compared to a few weeks ago.

The first thing to be noted is that the NSA story turned out not to be a scandal, except in the Kinsleyan sense of the term: there doesn’t appear to have been anything illegal going on, though of course one could raise the question of where our political system ought to be drawing the line on what’s legal in relation to a massive data collection program. And in fact, many did raise this question, from both the libertarian/Tea Party right and from the segment of progressive opinion that still gets worked up over the depredations of the military-industrial complex (which seems to have been Snowden’s angle). So much so that the NSA revelations became occasion for the latest round of speculation on the perennial subject of the potential convergence of the libertarian right and civil-liberties left into a cohesive force with the potential to change the country’s political balance of power.

But then—the details started coming out. No, the government has not been reading everybody’s emails and maintaining records of the contents of Americans’ cell phone calls. No, the program was not a rogue operation but rather was conducted with the judicial oversight as the law provides. No, it was not something of which Congress was unaware; in fact, information about the program was available to all members of Congress (which drastically limited the capacity of members of the House and Senate to adopt their reflexive posture of wounded outrage). And yes, the program probably did have something to do with foiling actual terrorist plots.

President Obama defended the program vigorously, noting at one point that he is no Dick Cheney—meaning, presumably, someone who believes the constitutional commander-in-chief powers and other executive powers allow a president almost unlimited freedom in fighting our enemies. His administration wasn’t going to act lawlessly, but rather with a full backstop of court orders and congressional notification. His reference annoyed conservative commentators, but the annoyance collapsed on the incoherence of the substantive critique: Since Cheney acted lawfully, Obama is too Dick Cheney (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Anyway, Obama was clearly trying to dampen the anger on his party’s left—which had the politically useful effect of reminding everyone that there is a left wing of the Democratic Party to which he stands in contrast. 

Meanwhile, the national-security wing of conservative opinion, much of it well-informed and including some card-carrying libertarians (who, after all, do believe that national security is something you need government for), was mostly stepping up to defend the NSA program and denounce the leaker. Collectively, this group has substantial media reach. No one on the right exactly praised Obama, at least not that I could find. In fact, the IRS scandal became Exhibit A for why people might rationally worry more than they otherwise would about possible government misuse of data the NSA swept in. But the defense of the program per se—a program of which Obama had taken ownership—undermined the emerging scandal-based portrait of a White House either not really in control of the government or sinisterly so. The irony is rich: The NSA scandal was supposed to be a story about a government out of control; it became an example of a government tightly in control of a sensitive program.

Finally, the libertarian/civil liberties-Left coalition didn’t emerge as any more than the sum of its parts. Partisan loyalties still seem to come first. Pay no attention to the bumper stickers on cars five years older or more that say “If you’re not outraged, you aren’t paying attention.”

So the NSA non-scandal was actually pretty good for Obama. His job approval ratings may be taking a dip, but his core constituency is still with him. And the mongers of the pre-NSA scandals will likely have a harder time driving a message in the absence of significant new revelations.