President Obama seems more committed to protecting national security than promoting civil liberties and privacy rights, which puts him firmly in the tradition of most of his predecessors, says presidential historian Robert Dallek.
"It's not surprising," Dallek tells me. "This is what presidents do."
Dallek says one reason is that there are "real national security concerns" that preoccupy every commander in chief. In Obama's case, they include fear of a repetition of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings.
Domestic politics also plays a role, Dallek says. Presidents believe that their top job is to "keep the country safe," and to fail in that mission would look "negligent," a reputation that no president wants, the historian notes.
Obama has strongly defended his administration's surveillance of phone and Internet communications, which have been exposed through a series of recent news leaks. "They make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity," Obama said.
"....They do not involve listening to people's phone calls, do not involve reading the emails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents absent further action by a federal court that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation."
On Wednesday, Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, said his agency's electronic surveillance programs have helped prevent dozens of terrorist attacks. "I think what we're doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing," Alexander told a congressional hearing. "Our agency takes great pride in protecting this nation – and our civil liberties and privacy."
But civil libertarians and some political liberals are up in arms. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit arguing that the National Security Agency program that keeps track of phone calls violates Americans' rights.
"The program goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy," argued Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, in a statement to reporters.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy group, told supporters in an email that the administration's cell-phone surveillance goes too far. "We just think that what's happening here is so outrageous, progressives can't afford to stand on the sidelines," Zaid Jilani, a spokesman for the group, told The Atlantic. "We have to stand up for accountable, transparent government that respects your rights."
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.