Steve Chapman

Every so often, we get proof that Barack Obama, when confronted with a grievous abuse of government power by his administration, will do the right thing. Sometimes, I mean. When he can't get away with it anymore, that is. Just as soon as he's tried everything else.

That's the case with his domestic phone records collection, which the president finally said he wants to put under tighter control than before. At moments like this, believe it or not, Obama sounds faintly like that guy who ran to replace George W. Bush.

"This administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security," he complained in 2007, while promising to be very different. "We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers."

But it turns out Obama was not against indulging the whims of a stubborn ruler if that ruler happens to be him. Upon arriving in the White House, he left the Bush-Cheney surveillance programs largely alone. Why? "He has more information than he did then," one former aide confided to The New York Times. "And he trusts himself to use these powers more than he did the Bush administration."

The fact that Obama trusted himself with these powers is ample reason the rest of us shouldn't. But we already had sufficient cause for suspicion. Our Constitution does not show an abundance of trust in elected officials. It rests on the belief that those in power need to be curbed and checked at every turn.

James Madison made the point memorably in The Federalist: "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

Obama, however, lost interest in controlling his intelligence agencies until Edward Snowden let the American public know what they were doing. It then became apparent that the sort of people who have been implementing the Affordable Care Act bear a strong resemblance to those running surveillance -- with the same regard for legal obligations and the same level of competence.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has been exceptionally tolerant of the National Security Agency's interpretation of its authority, found that no matter how generous the boundaries it set, the agency blew right through them.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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