Today President Barack Obama finally joins the national debate he called for a long time ago but then abandoned: the debate about how best to balance national security and civil liberty. As I outlined in NPR's scene-setter this morning, this debate is a tricky one for a president who wants to lead from behind. The public's view shifts markedly in response to perceptions of the threat, so a political leader who is only following the public mood will crisscross himself repeatedly.
Changing one's mind and shifting the policy is not inherently a bad thing to do. There is no absolute and timeless right answer, because this is about trading off different risks. The risk profile itself shifts in response to our actions. When security is improving and the terrorist threat is receding, one set of trade-offs is appropriate. When security is worsening and the terrorist threat is worsening, another might be.
It is likely, however, that the optimal answer is not the one advocated by the most fringe position. A National Security Agency (NSA) hobbled to the point that some on the far left (and, it must be conceded, the libertarian right) are demanding would be a mistake that the country would regret every bit as much as we would regret an NSA without any checks or balances or constraints.
Getting this right will require inspired and active political leadership. To date, Obama has preferred to stay far removed from the debate swirling around the Snowden leaks. This president relishes opportunities to spend political capital on behalf of policies that disturb Republicans, but, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's memoir details, Obama has been very reluctant to expend political capital on behalf of national security policies that disturb his base. Today Obama is finally engaging. It will be interesting to see how he threads the political needle and, just as importantly, how much political capital he is willing to spend in the months ahead to defend his policies.
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