Bashed by liberals and the GOP, White House launches three-pronged defense

The White House is employing a trio of defense strategies as it confronts a deepening controversy over the government's secret harvesting of phone and Internet data.

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The goal is fend off Republican attacks while calming the president’s liberal base, which has loudly criticized the administration for embracing the same programs that George W. Bush did.

President Obama touched on several defenses of his administration during a briefing with reporters in California on Friday. The remarks encapsulated the tough optics and rocky politics of the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance program.

First, the president insisted that the counterterrorism program was nothing new, having been first implemented under the Bush administration. He repeatedly noted that both "broad bipartisan majorities" in Congress and the federal courts had been regularly briefed on the program, and had repeatedly decided to reauthorize the surveillance efforts.

Next, Obama declared that the data-mining operation had proven an effective deterrent to terror attacks. Obama stopped short of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers's (R-Mich.) assertion the phone monitoring had directly thwarted a terror attack, but said nevertheless the programs "help us prevent" terrorism.

Finally, the president said he was sympathetic to the concerns expressed by Americans outraged over the massive surveillance effort. He said he welcomed a debate over the balance between security and privacy, and insisted his administration had implemented new safeguards and internal revues to prevent abuses of power. Obama went so far as to say that he could be the target of government monitoring and privacy invasion after leaving office.

The varied and sometimes competing explanations underscore that the White House is facing uncharted and potentially perilous waters with the latest controversy. It also highlights the distinct caucuses that the president must appease to put questions about the program to rest, freeing him to build momentum for his second term goals.

One of the top goals for the White House remains neutralizing the issue among congressional Republicans, many of whom are eager to exploit the controversy of evidence that the federal government under Obama has gotten too large and intrusive. Coupled with the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative political groups and the Justice Department's aggressive investigation of media leaks, the NSA programs dovetail neatly into the GOP’s argument for limiting the scope of government.

There are big incentives for Republicans to pile on: if the president’s favorability numbers were to tank, pressure to strike compromise deals on immigration and the budget would dissipate. A weakened president would also help Republicans build on some of their inherent electoral advantages — a gerrymandered House and Senate cycle with high Democratic retirement — headed into 2014.

To prevent that narrative from gaining steam, Obama handcuffed himself to congressional Republicans and the antiterrorism efforts launched under the Bush administration. He noted that “every member” of Congress had been briefed on the phone data program, and warned Republicans against politicizing the issue.

“I think it's interesting that there are some folks … who are now worried about it who weren't very worried about it when there was a Republican president,” Obama said.

But by attempting to co-opt Republicans, the president risks angering his liberal base. Already, Democrats have demanded a congressional investigation into the program and complained confidentiality restrictions have limited their ability to publicly voice their concerns.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) on Friday said the administration had not provided court rulings under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for his review, and accused the administration of overstepping its legal authority. He also disputed Obama’s claim that every member of Congress had been briefed on NSA’s domestic phone surveillance program.

The White House is working to bring liberal lawmakers back into the fold, knowing the importance of reliable congressional support. Administration officials briefed a group of senators on the surveillance programs Thursday, with a session planned next week for House members.

Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Al Gore and John Kerry, said the president can deal with his base “by speaking directly to them.”

“You’ve got to pick up the phone, talk to them, [and] when they raise legitimate concerns you've got to come back with your National Security Adviser on the phone, your secretary of State on the phone, and have a frank discussion,” Devine said.

Most dangerous for the president, however, could be eroding public support. A Gallup poll released Friday found that a third of those polled believed Obama administration officials had “poor” ethics, worse than similar surveys during the Bush and Clinton administrations. In a highly publicized editorial, The New York Times declared the White House had lost all credibility on executive power.

Administration officials on Friday stressed the president welcomes a public debate. They noted the Patriot Act was up soon for renewal, and pointed to the president’s recent national defense address in which he railed against a mindset of perpetual war.

Devine suggests that the administration might also be able to win back the public by doing something they’re already inclined to: pivot away from the controversy. Another month of encouraging jobs numbers suggest that the economy could be primed for growth, and a full-throated recovery would help Obama bounce back from the waves of controversy that have pounded him since the beginning of his second term.

“He just has to fight these tactical battles now to prove he can survive, but over the longer term, if he show voters he can still focus on the things that really concern them — the economy, healthcare, education — despite all the noise, he can turn the corner,” Devine said.