Presidents and the Security/Liberty Debate

By
John Harwood (NY Times)
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WASHINGTON — In his first Inaugural Address, President Obama stirred liberals by proclaiming that “we reject as false the choice between our safety and ideals.”

Five years in, the presidency has taught Mr. Obama that the choice he rejected is not so false after all. Ever since the disclosures about the extent of National Security Agency surveillance, leading to the changes that Mr. Obama plans to announce in a speech on Friday, a chastened president has embraced “balance” between competing imperatives of security and civil liberties.

History shows that is what the Oval Office does to everyone who occupies it. The grinding reality of governing the country nearly always gives the lie to the facile, I-can-square-the-circle formulations that winning candidates carry with them into the White House.

A tour through recent history shows Mr. Obama with plenty of company.Those formulations typically stem from candidates’ attempts to please all sides in contentious debates by acknowledging the concerns of opponents without surrendering their own principles. But it is rarely that easy.

When John F. Kennedy was campaigning for the White House and trying to counter concerns about his youth and inexperience as compared to his opponent, Richard M. Nixon, the two-term vice president, he ran as a fierce Cold Warrior who would close a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. Once elected, he vowed in his Inaugural Address to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” in the nation’s defense.

Within three months, Kennedy had begun to distance himself from the idea that the missile gap even existed. (Intelligence showed that the United States was much better armed.) And he had, to his own and the nation’s embarrassment, withdrawn air cover for American-trained Cuban exiles seeking to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs.

Four years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to calm turbulence beneath the surface of postwar America while pursuing an ambitious civil rights, health care and antipoverty agenda. “The day and the time are here to achieve progress without strife, to achieve change without hatred, not without difference of opinion but without the deep and abiding divisions which scar the union for generations,” he said.

Johnson achieved much of the progress and change he sought, but with steadily escalating strife and divisions that persist today in America’s polarized political system.

In 1968, Nixon won as a candidate hard-nosed enough to calm riotous streets. But while promising “decent order” in his first inaugural address, he also sought to blunt his reputation as “Tricky Dick” by citing “the better angels our nature” — words from Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address — as an answer to the nation’s “crisis of the spirit.”

Five years later, Nixon resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal.

President Ronald Reagan insisted that he could cut taxes and the deficit at the same time, but he accomplished the former as deficits ballooned. His successor, President George Bush, pledged to curb the deficit while preserving Mr. Reagan’s tax cuts, but he ended up abandoning his no-new-taxes pledge to achieve a budget deal with congressional Democrats.

President Bill Clinton vowed to “invest more in our own people” while also cutting “our massive debt.” He left office with a budget surplus for the first time in a generation, but Congress made him set aside many of the investments.

As a self-described “compassionate conservative,” President George W. Bush advocated tax cuts while at the same time describing antipoverty work as a biblical imperative. “When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho,” Mr. Bush told his first inaugural audience, “we will not pass to the other side.”

Mr. Bush proved far more successful on tax cutting than poverty fighting, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, soon transformed Mr. Bush’s agenda into that of a wartime president.

The controversies accompanying Mr. Bush’s emphasis on security — the Iraq war, the detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the National Security Agency’s surveillance — ignited strong Democratic opposition. But while Mr. Obama capitalized on the backlash against Mr. Bush’s security policies when he ran in the 2008 election, Mr. Obama also needed to assure Americans he could keep them safe.

In practice, Mr. Obama has continued and in some cases expanded many of the previous administration’s security policies, from striking foes with drone aircraft to maintaining the Guantánamo facility to preserving far-reaching N.S.A. surveillance.

If that represents a source of satisfaction to conservatives like former Vice President Dick Cheney, it has angered Mr. Obama’s liberal base as well as a rising band of libertarian Republicans, among them Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Mr. Obama’s position reflects the lesson that Johnson alluded to in his memoirs. His father had told him no man could understand parenthood until becoming a parent, Johnson wrote, and he came to think of the presidency the same way.

“Presidents are always going to grow and evolve because of what they learn,” said the presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “A president who does not do that is someone you probably don’t want as president.”

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