The Mendacity of Hope (and Change)

In the speech that launched him into national prominence at the 2004 Democratic Convention, then-State Senator Obama proclaimed that what the country needed were the “politics of hope.” In what would become the most memorable speech of the convention, he said, “… even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of ‘anything goes.’ Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America…. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope? … Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”

This gave rise to what would become the de facto theme of his 2008 campaign — “Hope and Change.” Obama promised he would unite all Americans and work with both political parties. The reality, however was that his presidency has turned into one of the most polarizing in recent history. Possibly the most concise critique of the president in this regard was that of Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign. At a rally in Ohio, Romney said, “Over the last four years, this president has pushed Republicans and Democrats as far apart as they can go. And now he and his allies are pushing us all even further apart by dividing us into groups. He demonizes some. He panders to others. His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then cobble together 51 percent of the pieces…. If an American president wins that way, we all lose.”

Romney’s assessment of the Obama presidency, while not enough to win him the campaign, exposes the great lie that lies at its heart. What we have is a presidency that offers no hope, and has brought us no change.

On August 1, 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama gave a policy talk on the fight against terror at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington D.C. Among the topics he covered in his address was the NSA surveillance program under the Bush administration. Obama had previously voted against the confirmation of Michael Hayden to head the CIA because he felt he wasn’t “humble” enough in “protecting our democracy” when he ran the NSA. He spelled out his criticism in that speech, saying that “[t]his Administration also puts forward 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…. No more illegal wiretapping of American citizens…. 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.”

However, when the data about PRISM leaked, and Obama was asked about it at a June 7, 2013 press availability when meeting with the president of China, he said, “…I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent privacy… we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

In reality, while Candidate Obama promised “change” in the way these programs are administered, that is far from the truth. In a media appearance on  Sunday, General Hayden said that “…in terms of what NSA is doing, there is incredible continuity between the two presidents…. NSA is actually empowered to do more things than I was empowered to do under President Bush….” Not only that, but he offered up the same exact rationale he termed a “false choice” just a few years earlier.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of this was what took place this past week. While Obama criticized the Bush administration for being secretive and claims to have the “most transparent administration in history,” his claim of transparency suffered a big setback this past week. On August 8, when questioned about his NSA surveillance program, Obama said, “I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused.” He was sure of this, because, “if you look at the reports, even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden’s put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now part of the reason they’re not abused is because they’re — these checks — are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court].”

This would be fine, if it were at all true. Last Friday, however, The Washington Post ran a story about an internal NSA audit they had received from Edward Snowden dated May 2012. The audit detailed 2,776 incidents in the preceding 12 months of unauthorized collection, storage, access to or distribution of legally protected communications. There were cases that were unintended. Some were failures of due diligence or violations of standard operating procedure. There were even incidents which included a violation of a court order and unauthorized use of data about more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders.

In the 2008 primary campaign, Obama turned back criticism from Hillary Clinton that he was just a flowery speaker with no content. She said it was “just words.” He went through all the great substantive speeches in American history, stopping to say “just words” after every iconic line. But if this president can be delivering the status quo after the lofty rhetoric of “change,” and claim there is no abuse in the NSA while the agency itself is aware of thousands of cases, he may have just proven Hillary right.

It was always just words.