With his summer vacation just around the corner, maybe Barack Obama was feeling punchy. In his hour long press conference Friday afternoon, the president spoke in some memorably colorful terms about a range of issues. But at the heart of the event was the ongoing controversy over the NSA’s surveillance programs.
Obama opened by announcing several relatively modest steps to allay public concerns about the NSA’s activities, which he stressed are a problem both domestically but also (perhaps moreso) in other countries. Those steps include newly-released documents from the Justice Department and the NSA explaining the legal basis and parameters of the surveillance programs, plans for a group of outside experts to review the issue, and Obama’s willingness to work with Congress to add more oversight and transparency to the data collection process. Obama also said he would support changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, allowing for a more adversarial process at a court often accused of rubber-stamping the government’s requests. “It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said. “The American people need to have confidence in them as well.”
The subject seemed to bring out the writer in Obama, for better or for worse.
“We’ve seen information coming out in drips and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways,” Obama said of the NSA’s programs. “Let’s put the whole elephant out there and see what we’ve got.” For a deeper dive on his proposed reforms, see this write-up at the national security law blog Lawfare, though they’re not likely to placate critics who long stopped trusting the administration’s statements on on its electronic snooping. (Nor will they appreciate Obama’s caveat, after he asserted that most critics of the surveillance programs are “patriots,” that, “No, I don’t think Mr. [Edward] Snowden was a patriot.”
Obama also threw in a curious metaphor about public trust: “If I tell Michelle that I did the dishes — now, granted, in the White House, I don’t do the dishes that much, but back in the day — and she’s a little skeptical, well, I’d like her to trust me, but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes and not just have her take my word for it,” Obama said. It was not his finest rhetorical moment, perhaps. And predictably, conservatives chortled online.
But the president got in his own digs against the right. Asked about conservative efforts to defund Obamacare that could force a government shutdown this fall, his irritation was clear. Obama disdainfully called the GOP’s fixation with of blocking the law “their holy grail,” adding: “The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don’t have healthcare.”
Sounding exasperated, Obama also lamented the resistance of House Republicans to passing an immigration reform bill. “This is one where you’ve actually got some pretty broad consensus. I don’t know an issue where you’ve got labor, the Chamber of Commerce, evangelicals, student groups, you name it, supportive of the bill,” Obama said. “Let’s get it done.” But Washington has hardly been a place where things get done lately, and there’s no much evidence that’s about to change. Which is why Obama must be looking forward to that vacation.