Something happened to Barack Obama on the way to the White House. He became the president.
Now that may seem like a tautology, or a wiseguy’s aside. But the remark is meant seriously. Presidents look at the world differently than senators do. They look at the world differently from any other soul on Earth.
All of which explains the president’s resolute belief in secrecy and the clandestine arts, despite his views as a senator, despite the disbelief and disapproval of many of his most ardent supporters. He believes in openness in the regulatory process and in much of the day-to-day business of government, including the online publication of White House visitor logs. He has released the George W. Bush administration memorandums on torture policies.
But a lot of the things that once seemed clear to him, especially in the national-security sphere, aren’t quite so obvious on the side of the Oval Office desk where the drawers are.
All of this underlines two very important characteristics of the modern presidency.
The first is the struggle, dating to Woodrow Wilson, over the virtue or menace of secrecy. The second is the inclination — and here Mr. Obama and Richard Nixon are the reigning champions, though they are not alone — to feel this way: If you knew what I knew, you would do what I am doing.
First the struggle of values.
Woodrow Wilson won the world’s hearts, and the revulsion of the world’s diplomats, when, in the shorthand of 1918, he called for “open covenants openly arrived at.” This notion was imbedded in the very first of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the utopian view of the post-World War I world that was seized upon equally by idealists worldwide and by the defeated (Germany), the disillusioned (the Soviet rebels of the Russian Revolution) and the dispossessed (among them Ho Chi Minh, then an unknown nationalist seeking freedom from France for colonial Indochina).
The actual language is illuminating: “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”
It’s important to remember that Wilson’s Fourteen Points were in part a capitalist counterpoint to the Russian Revolution, which had occurred only two months earlier and was accompanied by the publication of secret treaties and this statement by Leon Trotsky:
“Secret diplomacy is a necessary tool for a propertied minority which is compelled to deceive the majority in order to subject it to its interests. Imperialism, with its dark plans of conquest and its robber alliances and deals, developed the system of secret diplomacy to the highest level.”
Among the documents the revolutionary Soviets released were the secret protocols of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which proposed to divide much of the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence, with Tsarist Russia to get much of present-day Turkey. This did not ennoble the cause of the Triple Entente, but it surprised no one with even a passing familiarity with the big-power realpolitik that produced it.
Thus secrecy has been a matter of white-hot controversy throughout modern times and has been employed for causes generally embraced today (the Sons of Liberty, cited by Mr. Obama in his surveillance speech this month) and for some that are still matters of contention (the Manhattan Project, for example, or American overtures to 1980s “moderates” in Iran).
Into this polarizing vortex we now mix the “president-knows-best” impulse, favored by some presidents (George W. Bush) but not employed by others (Franklin Roosevelt, who also faced tremendous national-security threats).
Mr. Obama clearly is troubled — tortured, you might say, if that were not a loaded word in this context — by this issue, torn by what he thinks is right and by what he thinks about when he confronts the threats the country faces by groups hostile to American interests and the American way of life. In some ways his life is a struggle to reconcile the one with the other.
In his secrecy speech, he deplored East Germany’s “vast, unchecked surveillance” and referred to U.S. government spying on civil-rights leaders and anti-war protesters as “abuse of surveillance.” He even cribbed a line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, saying that “[i]n the long, twilight struggle against communism, we had been reminded that the very liberties that we sought to preserve could not be sacrificed at the altar of national security.”
That is the crux of the tension, the peril that in the zeal to protect our rights we undermine them. During the Cold War, this tension flared, with the danger that in opposing Moscow in foreign affairs, the nation faced the hazard of behaving like Soviet Russia in domestic affairs.
The problem is that, in a world where high-tech surveillance is so sophisticated that the instruments of everyday life, such as BlackBerrys and iPhones, are not even permitted in the White House Situation Room, presidents understandably want their intelligence services to know as much as possible. “We were shaken,” the president said of the 2001 terrorist strikes, “by the signs we had missed leading up to the attacks — how the hijackers had made phone calls to known extremists and traveled to suspicious places.”
The beginning of understanding the president’s view is to consider how he begins his day, with a security briefing that many days is chilling.
“I was shocked by what I heard in my briefings,” Bush-administration attorney general Michael B. Mukasey said in a telephone conversation the other day. “You find out on a comprehensive basis the threats out there. When you see what’s been stopped, you realize what would have happened if those threats weren’t stopped — and you realize who would be blamed. There are people in the world who, if they had ‘to-do’ lists on their refrigerators, the list would consist of one entry: ‘get the United States.’ ”
That clearly has affected the president deeply.
Mr. Obama’s problem is that his conviction that he has information others don’t — a fact that is incontestable — makes for a president who seems remote and unaccountable. That may be an inevitable characteristic of the modern presidency, but so, too, is distrust and skepticism of the modern presidency.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890).