(The Root) — In the annals of American political history, President Barack Obama's droll remark that "I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker" isn't going to rank with "Ask not what your country can do for you" or "Nothing to fear but fear itself," but for a president looking to turn the page on several weeks of rough news, it'll probably do.
The comment, offered at a press conference in Dakar, Senegal, on Thursday, not only gave the president a chance to neatly sum up his thoughts on former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden but also highlighted how Obama — initially on the defensive about the NSA surveillance programs that Snowden exposed — is ready to wring political advantage from the situation.
And Snowden's the one helping him do it.
Because even if throwing Obama an assist was never part of Snowden's game plan, after weeks of frenzied coverage and distracting international intrigue, it increasingly looks as if that's what l'affaire Snowden could do.
Ultimately, this case shouldn't be about Snowden, and up to this point, the public hand-wringing over his relative youth (he's 30), lack of a college degree and ballerina girlfriend has distracted from the issue. The debate should be whether our national-security apparatus overreached by culling all of our phone records and sifting through our Internet activity in its effort to thwart terror plots.
And Snowden gets credit for igniting that debate. But the continuing melodrama surrounding his globe-trotting escape from American law enforcement isn't, in the end, an embarrassment for Obama. It actually sets up a political contrast that favors the president: Ex-spy rages against the machine while gray-haired president tries to keep you safe. It's a story that the White House is happy to go with.
Because prior to Snowden's disclosure that the NSA collects phone and Internet data for millions of Americans, Obama was getting dogged around the clock about Internal Revenue Service employee shenanigans, the Justice Department putting screws to a Fox News reporter and the president's legislative agenda stalling out in Congress. But with each Snowden plot twist, the Fourth Amendment issues get buried, and Obama can pivot to climate control, his multicountry Africa tour and the pursuit of legal options against the fugitive leaker — while Snowden starts looking a little bit flaky.
You can't blame Snowden for leaving town, but you don't have to think that he's a traitor (I don't) to still be put off by the fact that he chose (China-controlled) Hong Kong and Russia — our erstwhile "frenemies" — as the first stops on his escape route, rather than heading straight to Ecuador, where he's seeking asylum now. It's a sequence that makes it look as if his agenda included more than just starting an earnest civil liberties debate.
And when it comes to that debate, Snowden looks a little less like a freedom fighter and a little more like a dilettante now that it's been reported that just a few years ago, he was denouncing anyone who leaked classified information — saying that anyone who did the same thing he's doing now should be "shot in the balls."
Presumably, he doesn't think so anymore.
But most significant for the president now is that although people on both sides of the aisle are disturbed by the NSA revelations, a debate about whether he's been too aggressive in the war on terror is one that he'll take because it plays against how he's been typecast by foes for years: as a weak-kneed socialist who's unwilling to prosecute the war on terror.
And now that the issue's out in the open, the onus falls on Congress and the courts to rein in the administration's security policy, since any American president — past, present and probably future — would almost always rather be called too aggressive than too weak.
Because if you think the NSA furor is bad, just imagine if Obama had curtailed its surveillance program — and then some sort of terror attack that might otherwise have been foiled had happened shortly thereafter.
Obama might be the one they'd call traitor — and Snowden might still work at the NSA.
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.