Obama doubles down on NSA defense as poll numbers slip

President Obama doubled down Monday on his defense of two National Security Agency spying programs that have damaged his approval ratings and distracted his presidency.

In an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, Obama argued it’s a “false choice” to suggest freedom must be sacrificed to achieve security, a phrasing that echoes comments he made on the campaign trail in 2008.

“To say there’s a tradeoff doesn’t mean somehow that we’ve abandoned freedom,” Obama said according to a transcript first published by Buzzfeed. The full interview will air later Monday.

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The president insisted that he had implemented additional safeguards to protect personal privacy, and sought to contrast his polices with the Bush administration amid charges that the surveillance programs highlight his own hypocrisy.

“Some people say ‘Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney,” Obama said. “Dick Cheney sometimes says, 'Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel.’

“My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather, are we setting up a system of checks and balances?” Obama said.

The interview underscored the defensive posture the White House has adopted in recent weeks, with the president arguing that the NSA spying is "transparent" despite Rose noting that the independent court created to monitor the program served essentially as a rubber stamp.

The comments were Obama’s first remarks about programs dominating the news since June 7, when he offered an initial defense of the program.

Polling has suggested that a majority of voters broadly accept the programs as a way to fight terrorism, though a new poll released Monday by CNN found significant damage to the president’s brand.

Half of those surveyed said they do not believe the president to be trustworthy, the first time a majority has held that opinion. Moreover, the president lost 10 points among independents and 17 points among those under 30, suggesting widespread unease about the programs.

Phil Singer, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said Obama’s task is complicated by other controversies, including the Internal Revenue Service’s admitted targeting of conservative political action groups and the Justice Department’s investigations into reporters.

Most of what Obama said in the new interview echoed his previous remarks, though his comparison of his own policies with President George W. Bush’s was largely new. It echoed arguments Democratic lawmakers have made over the past week.

Obama has come under fire from the left for attacking Bush’s policies as a candidate but then employing similar policies as president. Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old contractor who leaked the programs to the press, said he did so in part from disappointment with Obama.

Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said public perceptions that Obama has somehow shifted on the use of surveillance programs since entering the White House is a problem.

“The issue is especially challenging given that there had been an expectation going back to the 2008 campaign that the choice between civil liberties and national security was a false choice,” said Lehane. “He has the double burden of both trying to justify the policies and make clear how they are in fact consistent with the political brand he established as far back as 2008.”

The Rose interview appeared to be part of a new White House effort to more aggressively defend the NSA programs.

Strategists say the White House needs to regain control of the news cycle to prevent the slip in the polls from becoming a permanent downward spiral.

“Over the last several months, events have dictated this president instead of this president dictating events,” Singer said.

Sonwden has become an unwitting ally of the president, however, by becoming the public face of the leaks. His disclosures have led members of both parties to declare him a traitor, and support on Capitol Hill for the programs has given Obama some cover.

On Monday, Snowden held a bombastic online chat through The Guardian — in which he declared he could be “living in a palace petting a phoenix by now” if he wished to trade information to China for asylum.

Obama offered no comment on Snowden in the interview with Rose, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

This story was posted at 4:34 p.m. and updated at 5:57 p.m.