Did the president do himself and the Democrats any good today in his speech on his new National Security Agency policies?
National security issues generally don’t drive votes at the ballot box, but they do contribute to the political environment in which elections take place. Voters are skeptical of President Obama on just about every issue, and are obviously concerned about government encroachment on their personal privacy. So when the president takes the occasion to personally reassure Americans on this issue, does it diminish voters’ anxiety, or just give them more reason to doubt what they are being told?
It is predictable that Obama would publicly proclaim that he, “must maintain the trust of the American people, and people around the world,” but his credibility is already damaged and no single speech is going to restore it. I will admit, he is in a lose-lose situation. The policies in question are important; the president has to deal with them and address the issue. But only a very few give him the benefit of the doubt or will be reassured by his assertions. According to today’s Gallup three-day rolling average, the president’s job approval rating has dropped to 39 percent. He doesn’t have much of a receptive audience — this poll suggests that almost 60 percent of Americans are inclined to have doubts about his words and actions.
As the details of the president’s speech are analyzed, there is probably zero chance that conservative voters will be more trusting of the president as a result of what he said today. Since there is no way the president did himself any good with conservatives, the question is, how did he do with independents, moderates and liberals? Very few voters saw the speech; whatever impact it has will be shaped by the news coverage and the commentary as it evolves in the days ahead. A lot will depend on whether some of the president’s key words and phrases are taken at face value, or if they are interpreted as “weasel words” that actually mean the surveillance of U.S. citizens will continue.
For instance, the president said that he is, “ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists.” Well, I can hear a late-night comic setting up that phrase and the audience spontaneously laughing. Privacy purists like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are already dismissing the details of the speech, saying that “President Obama’s announced solution to the NSA spying controversy is the same unconstitutional program with a new configuration.”
The debacle of a nobody contractor like Edward Snowden being able to walk away with so many state secrets is stunning. The fact that it happened on the president’s watch means he is weakened by the episode. There are very few voters who will point to the Snowden disaster or to government spying as a reason for voting against Democrats, but the whole issue of the NSA spying program contributes to the cloud hanging over the Democrats and diminishes their prospects in the 2014 elections.
Follow Ed on Twitter: @EdRogersDC