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On National Security, Obama Follows Bush's Lead

President Obama and former President George W. Bush are joined by more than a handshake. Their national security policies link them, too.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama and former President George W. Bush are joined by more than a handshake. Their national security policies link them, too.

It's an overstatement to say that it's beginning to look like President George W. Bush's fourth term.

Still, that characterization by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer carried the ring of truth Thursday with the report that a National Security Agency telecommunications program that Americans first became aware of under Bush has continued under Obama.

The revelation that the intelligence agency, with federal court approval, was gathering all data about domestic phone calls on Verizon's network was yet another reminder of the continuity, at least on matters of national security, between the two administrations.

In other words, there are times when those photos you can find on the Web of President Obama's and President George W. Bush's faces morphing into each other seem awfully apt. This is such a time.

Voters who first cast ballots in 2008 for hope and change might have thought Obama represented a new approach when it came to civil liberties, a change that would lead to, if not the end of all the previous administration's national security approach, then at least a significant downward shift.

But if anything, on national security Obama appears to be an extension of the prior administration. In some instances, he has even far surpassed a predecessor whom few would accuse of being wimpy on national security.

Obama, for instance, has presided over significant expansions of some national-security tactics that took shape under Bush. Obama has greatly increased counterterrorism strikes by armed drones like the Predator in places like Pakistan and Yemen, even killing several U.S. citizens without anything resembling the kind of due process Americans generally think of as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Obama has also aggressively pursued leaks of classified information with more prosecutions than all prior administrations combined. The Justice Department's controversial collecting of Associated Press phone records was apparently part of that continuing effort.

Throughout all this, the president has generally managed to maintain public support for his approach. His own job approval ratings have stayed mostly above water with his approval at around 50 percent, though surveys also indicated that more of the public disapproved of certain policies, like the Justice Department's subpoenas of journalist phone records in its hunt for leakers.

The available evidence suggests that when the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, explains its actions as necessary to keep Americans safe from terrorism, the public tends to be understanding. The administration did just that on Thursday.

In a statement he read aboard Air Force One Thursday as the president headed to North Carolina. a White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, called the telecommunications surveillance program "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States."

Earlier this year, a senior White House official who spoke off the record to a group of journalists indicated a belief that Americans have given the White House considerable space to do what it deems essential — such as the drone strikes — to keep them safe. That has only become more true since the Boston Marathon bombings, the official said.

To some degree, on national security Obama may be benefiting from the Nixon-goes-to-China phenomenon. Just as Nixon could reconnect the U.S. to China because he had firmly established anti-Communist bona fides, as a center-left politician Obama may have more room for maneuver on civil liberties issues because he represents a political tradition that's often skeptical of how government uses its police powers.

In any event, that the telecommunications surveillance has continued so robustly on Obama's watch is just another example of how the president's aggressive stance has helped to erase the longtime Republican advantage on national security issues — an edge the GOP will have trouble regaining, so long as the current occupant of the White House has any say in it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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