President Obama has always dreaded the surveillance controversy. From the moment he became president, he knew that it would fall on him. The only question was how hard.
For in order to be president, he had to make his peace with the powers-that-be in American politics. I imagine that process went something like this:
Let's go back to the last months of George W. Bush's first term, when this second term was already assured (and how could it not be, with a clumsy candidate like John Kerry?). At the time, the War on Terror was transforming the country and the early 9-11 Truthers were just starting to murmur dark things about "controlled demolition." At the same time, public security agencies were mushrooming at a rate of some twenty new ones a year, putting billions into the pockets of private security firms, all while the surveillance state was being lavishly funded and permanently erected and the housing bubble was just a rumor. Ah, those were the days for the Masters of the Universe.
With Bush headed for re-election, the Masters began to look around for their next president. They did not much like what they saw. Any Republican could be counted on to carry on the revolution, but among Republicans, real contenders for the White House were few. Besides, after the Herculean effort to get the puerile W. into office, they weren't looking forward to another such battle. So, being pragmatic folks, the Masters of the Universe looked around on the Democratic side. After all, they breezed over their martinis, why get a Republican to do your dirty work when you can get a Democrat to do it for half the price? All they'd had to do was dangle a scandal or two in front of Bill Clinton's startled face, and financial deregulation was done.
They discussed Hillary, but Hillary came with baggage and, more to the point, a solid political base. She would have the clout to tone down much of the Bush revolution, especially the surveillance-cum-security state, and would probably do so as the fear from 9-11 faded. (Not even the Masters expected it to last ten years.)
Their questing collective eye eventually fell on a personable young state senator in Illinois. Yes, here was their man: intelligent, articulate, ambitious, effortlessly photogenic, clean of scandal, great on the stump, married to the brightest smile in Chicago and father of two cute daughters -- rock-of-the-family types who could be counted on to play soccer and pipe down on cue.
So the Masters of the Universe chose the more politically palatable among themselves -- guys who know how the world works but like to make sure that everyone has at least a PopTart to eat every day -- and they sat down to dinner with the young senator. After the T-bones had been eaten and the cigars lit and the elegant back room in the restaurant filled with smoke -- just for that touch of realism -- they said to Obama, "Senator, how would you like to be president? We can make it happen."
And Obama, who is no fool, said, "Sounds great -- but there's always a catch to these things. What is it?"
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