By Bill Boyarsky
Edward Snowden was not one of the honored guests at the State of the Union speech Tuesday night. But the whistle-blower’s presence was felt, at least to a small degree.
The National Security Agency’s spying, revealed by Snowden, occupied just a small part of President Barack Obama’s speech. Most of it was feel-good stuff. Except for his defense of Obamacare and support of a higher minimum wage, only the most coldhearted Republican could object to what he said. Who could find fault with persuading businesses to hire the long-term unemployed? Or who could not want to “work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs right here at home”?
So it was noteworthy, if not remarkable, that Snowden, facing federal charges for giving journalists classified defense and intelligence information about NSA spying, managed to corner the president into considering the spying issue.
If Snowden had not acted, it’s improbable that Obama would have said, “Working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs—because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”
Snowden, speaking from his Russian exile before the speech, said that actually, the president could accomplish reform by himself. “The NSA operates under the president’s executive authority,” he told a German television interviewer. “He can end or modify or direct a change in the policies at any time.”
That, of course, is unlikely. For, as the speech showed, Obama’s goal is to save the Senate for the Democrats in the 2014 election and possibly pick up a few seats in the Republican House. A divisive debate over spying wouldn’t further those aims.
Obama was stronger when it came to the Affordable Care Act, which is likely to be an election plus for the Democrats if the botched signup procedures continue to improve. He dared the Republicans to try to change it.
“Now, I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law,” he said. “But I know that the American people aren’t interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people and increase choice—tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up. But let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans. …. The first 40 were plenty. We got it. We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”
With millions signing up and Obamacare becoming part of American life, the president may well leave office with a real legacy. And if he, by executive action, raises the minimum wage for the many employees of federal contractors and is able to assure immigrants of a path to citizenship, he’ll have more to boast about.
But it is a legacy that will always be tainted by the domestic spying that Snowden exposed, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency was stained by the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans at the start of World War II.
Such spying is counter to the idea of American freedom, of a country where all opinions should be freely expressed. This ideal is ignored more than it is followed. It’s noteworthy that Pete Seeger, the great folk singer and fighter for freedom, died Monday, the day before the State of the Union speech. He was victimized by an earlier generation of domestic spies in the form of the staff and members of the House Un-American Activities Committee and undoubtedly the FBI.
In defying the committee, and earning a contempt charge, Seeger said a few words that caught the oft-violated spirit of American freedom: “I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.”
Those are inspiring words about a country we’d like to believe in, especially compared with President Obama’s weak promise to try to “reform” a spy machine capable of destroying our freedom without us knowing it.