'George W. Obama'? Not Quite

President Obama and former President George W. Bush in Dallas (Getty Images)
President Obama and former President George W. Bush in Dallas (Getty Images)

(The Root) — Ever since the Guardian's revelation Wednesday that the National Security Agency is gathering millions of Americans' phone records, and Thursday's Washington Post report that the NSA tapped into the servers of nine Internet service providers to pry into Americans' emails and instant messaging traffic, we've seen outrage across the political spectrum — some real and some put on — that's best summed up by the New York Times' sober editorial "President Obama's Dragnet," but also by the Huffington Post's almost comically overwrought above-the-fold headline:

"George W. Obama"

The tongue-in-cheek conflation of the president's name with that of his predecessor is a dig topped only by Yahoo's Walter Shapiro, who argues that President Barack Obama has now become content to "talk like Rand Paul and govern like Dick Cheney."


And it's hard to argue with the critics who are saying that the NSA's actions — technically legal by the standards of the 2007 Protect America Act and 2008 FISA Amendments Act — are a fairly gross executive-branch overreach.

As the Times correctly notes, "The executive branch will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it." And as Shapiro rightly points out, the excuse that the NSA is only gathering "metadata" — and not actually listening in on your phone calls — is practically akin to them saying that "We haven't secretly shredded all your civil liberties … yet."

It's just the latest in a string of recent messes that the administration has to clean up, stat.

But by contrast, jabs like the HuffPost headline or former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer's tweet that Obama is "carrying out Bush's 4th term" just don't hold water. Because everything from escalation in Afghanistan to drone strikes to the use of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrants to gathering intelligence data is consistent with what the president promised to do.

When he told voters in 2008 that he planned to "crush al-Qaida," that meant ruthlessly hunting and killing them — not sitting around a conference table hashing out an armistice.

The idea that Obama is some sort of apostate peacenik who, if he does anything Bush would, is copycatting his predecessor is a misunderstanding that goes all the way back to the president's first campaign.


The president's only "carrying out Bush's fourth term" if you think there's no difference between someone who authorized waterboarding and someone who banned it. And he's only mimicking his predecessor if you think there's no difference between the guy who responded to 9/11 by invading Iraq and a guy who ended the war there on time, and with a measure of dignity, while opponents like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) pressed him to stay longer.

Yes, Obama has clearly flip-flopped on domestic surveillance, since his NSA still carries out exactly the kind of "fishing expedition" that then-Sen. Obama railed against back in 2005. But for conservatives to interpret this as some sort of post hoc vindication of the Bush era — or for liberals to take it as a wholesale reversal by the guy they've voted twice to put into office — is to misread the character of the people we elevate to the presidency.


Obama is no Bush, but they share at least one trait that applies to nearly anyone who has held the office of president: Both men aspire to the cliché "He kept us safe" — and neither is particularly invested in making a new cliché out of "He protected our privacy."

David Swerdlick is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter