President Barack Obama is fighting a war on two fronts these days when it comes to surveillance and the national security state, struggling to make amends with miffed allies that have been subject to U.S. spying like Germany and France and facing challenges from state lawmakers at home.
Dozens of privacy laws have passed this year in more than 10 states, including California and Oklahoma, inspired at least in part by Edward Snowden’s revelations of a massive NSA spying and data-collection regime, one that apparently included the private cell phones of E.U. political leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Some U.S. state governments, like those in Florida and Idaho, are moving to block drone activity as well, a domestic response to an anti-terrorism tactic this White House has used many, many times in Pakistan, Africa, and other volatile regions, even if the growing awareness of the terrible collateral damage they do has led to a reduction in the past year.
The question, then, is whether local and state elected officials moving to express disapproval of drone activity and federal intelligence gathering efforts actually matters to a president who has already secured re-election — and has generally defied libertarian critics at will since 2009. One might assume not, though it’s worth noting that Obama has expressed determination to win control of Congress next fall and muscle through more of his agenda. Remaining cognizant of, and perhaps even deferential to, local sentiment is important (as are his approval ratings, now at a new low of 42 percent) if the president is to improve his party’s brand and capitalize on resentment of the recent government shutdown. It remains to be seen whether the privacy push last longer than resistance to the president’s healthcare law in the states, where local lawmakers are supposed to be setting up exchanges for individuals to purchase coverage.
Also unclear is how much of this legislation has to do with conservative reaction to the Obama presidency that might dissipate under a potential GOP successor in 2017. A handful of states taking steps on privacy or drone regulation surely has grabbed the attention of the military industrial complex, but this isn’t exactly a movement yet. It’s easy to envision 2016 presidential contenders from both parties jumping on the anti-drone, anti-spying bandwagon — Republicans Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have done so already — but will rank-and-file GOP members of Congress (many of whom have long histories of embracing an all-of-the-above approach to fighting terrorism) actually vote to end these practices? It’s decidedly unclear how much authority Congress even has to rein in the scope of the surveillance state, and that there are old national security hands in both chambers (from both parties) ready to defend them suggests the patchwork of state legislative activity is more of a flurry than sign of things to come.