President Obama on Friday will deliver a major speech on the National Security Agency's sweeping surveillance efforts, which were thrust into the public spotlight for the first time last year.
Ahead of Obama's speech, in which he will call for changes to how the NSA collects and uses telephone records of U.S. citizens and ask Congress to help shape the future of the program, it's worth taking a look at where the American public stands. Here are four numbers from a November Washington Post-ABC News poll and a December Gallup survey that illustrate Americans' feelings, along with what they mean for Obama:
* 60 percent: That's the percentage of Americans who said they believe Edward Snowden's exposure of surveillance programs harmed national security, according to the poll. That was up 11 percent from July. While there are serious concerns about privacy with regard to the NSA's efforts (more on that in a moment), it's not as if the president is addressing a country that has rallied around Snowden or his cause. (More than half of Americans said Snowden should be charged with a crime.) That's important to keep in mind for tomorrow. Obama will probably explain why it's important to keep classified information classified. But he doesn't have to linger on that point because Americans already see a risk in such information leaking out.
* 68 percent: Nearly 70 percent said the NSA's surveillance of telephone call records and internet traffic intrudes on some Americans' privacy rights, according to the Post-ABC poll. Herein lies Obama's challenge: How do you sell the public on keeping a phone record program that has triggered deep concerns about privacy? Will limits on the program change Americans' opinions? Obama certainly hopes that it will.
* 53 percent: More than half of Americans said they disapproved of the way Obama had handled the NSA surveillance activities, compared to just 35 percent who said they approved in the Post-ABC poll. That's the baseline Obama is working from and Friday is his next big chance to improve his standing. So far, Obama has struggled to settle nerves among his most ardent supporters – just 56 percent of Democrats approved of his handling of NSA surveillance, 28 points below his overall job approval mark among fellow partisans.
* 2 percent: The NSA programs were not named among Americans' list of Obama’s “biggest failures” in the Gallup poll. What's more, just two percent said anything close to it ("taking away rights/overstepping constitutional powers") should be placed in that category. There's no doubt that the revelations about the programs hurt Obama in what amounted to the worst year of his presidency. But it's simply not his biggest political problem. So no matter what Obama says or how he is received on Friday, don't expect to see his broader image change dramatically as a result.
Updated at 10:13 a.m. on 1/17