Maybe it was the upbeat mood of a man about to go on vacation, but President Obama seemed feistier than usual in making the case today for his policies on surveillance, health care and immigration reform.
During his second term, Obama has sometimes seemed back on his heels in defending his policies against Republican attack, but that wasn’t the case in his White House news conference Friday. He argued for what he called, at one point, “common sense” solutions, with seeming confidence that he has the upper hand politically against the GOP.
Obama’s attempts to hold the middle ground, and seek bipartisan solutions, have sometimes seemed like fool’s errand in this year’s intensely partisan Washington. But on the issues of surveillance, immigration and even the bogeyman of “Obamacare,” the president talked Friday with the seeming assurance that it’s the Republicans who are isolated and out of step, rather than the White House.
The headline in the news conference was probably Obama’s undiplomatic crack about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “slouch” and demeanor as the “bored kid in the back of the classroom.” It was a great line because it was funny and an accurate description of Putin’s weird body language. But it was also the sign of a relaxed president who for once wasn’t walking on eggshells. Obama also got off a good line about how Russia’s Olympic team will be weaker if it doesn’t include any gay and lesbian athletes.
On surveillance issues, Obama proposed four reforms to reassure the public following the revelations by leaker Edward Snowden about National Security Agency monitoring of communications. The reforms were thin on specifics, proposing additional “transparency” and “oversight” without detail. But they ended weeks in which the administration has simply been pounded by each new disclosure.
Two of the proposals could have real impact. Obama indicated he would support an “adversarial” process in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which would presumably allow privacy advocates to challenge Justice Department surveillance requests. This would make the FISC a very different (and less aggressive) body than now. Whatever the cost in quick decision -making, this approach would bring the FISC panel, and by extension surveillance policy, more firmly within American legal traditions.
The murkiest of Obama’s surveillance proposals, for a commission that would examine new technologies dealing with surveillance, might actually have the most impact. That’s because some leading technologists believe that there may actually be systems that could enhance privacy rights while also allowing aggressive surveillance in cases where there was a genuine threat to national security.
Obama gave one of his most aggressive defenses ever of his health-care reforms, arguing that repeal of “Obamacare” has become the “holy grail” for Republicans who don’t have any alternative. He mocked them for demanding continued denial of care for 30 million uninsured Americans and repeal of measures benefiting the rest of the country. As for Republican suggestions that they would shut down the government to force repeal of health-care reform, Obama almost seemed to be daring them to take that extreme step, arguing that such partisan moves are precisely what the public dislikes about Washington politics.
“I have confidence that common sense will prevail,” Obama said of the GOP leadership, with more conviction in his voice than is sometimes the case.
On immigration reform, too, Obama seemed convinced that his opponents are increasingly isolated and vulnerable. The passage of a bipartisan Senate bill risks making House Republicans look out of step not only with a broad array of lobbying groups, but the leadership of their own party. A Martha’s Vineyard holiday may not by the best imagery for this president who ceaselessly proclaims his devotion to the middle class, but Obama seemed halfway there already Friday.