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Jane Ahlin, Published November 02 2013

Ahlin: Problem not health care; it’s unrestrained spying

President Barack Obama is vulnerable – just not for the reasons congressional tea partiers think he is. Regardless, they are tickled pink that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – has problems in the rollout: really, really big problems. What fun for tea partiers to get back their oomph after screwing up royally with the government shutdown. The miscalculations of the Obama administration in getting the new health care insurance exchanges up and running have given their cause new life. If they couldn’t kill health care reform one way, by jiminy, they’ll kill it another; the point is to kill it, kill it, kill it. What a relief to return to their favorite type of argument – no ideas necessary, just sputter, sputter, puff and blow. (Hate Obamacare, hate

Obama … hate Obamacare, hate Obama …) Foaming-at-the-mouth outrage: that’s their ticket.

Then what?

Well, probably more of the same. When the desired outcome for tea party legislators is the destruction of government – while they, themselves, bank a princely salary and enjoy the security of gold-plated health care, not to mention a pension plan that puts them on easy street for the rest of their lives – making positive changes to legislation is so, so not happening.

Still, there is a pinprick in their bombastic balloon. Even allowing for early problems, people are signing up for Obamacare, and best guess is that signing up will get easier and the plans become more understandable as weeks go by. To be sure, the system will have all sorts of glitches along the way, and yet, as with Medicare, the time will come when the majority of Americans appreciate universally available health care and are relieved to have it.

And the endless tea party fights to kill it? Think Custer’s last stand. Making health care accessible and affordable for the majority of Americans is likely to be Obama’s greatest achievement while in office.

That said, while tea party legislators remain apoplectic and purple-faced over health care reform, Obama’s real Achilles’ heel is out there for all to see. It just has nothing to do with health care. Obama is caught in the NSA scandal, which more and more suggests a spy agency run amok. Although the selective release of documents stolen by former NSA employee Edward Snowden may be damaging to the U.S. in the short run, in the long run, revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance threaten the legacy of the Obama administration.

The privacy we have given up since 9/11 is mind-boggling. Remember Patriot Acts I and II? Remember Total Information Awareness that was renamed “Terrorist” Information Awareness to make it more palatable? As many of us feared when Americans nonchalantly gave up privacy rights for the illusion of safety, intelligence agencies ended up abusing their power.

What do we do now? How do we go back to Sept. 10, 2001?

The short answer is that we don’t. And the fault for that doesn’t rest only with the government. The explosion of social media and Internet use causes most of us to make our private information available in hundreds of ways with no strings attached. Click into a story about a new diet and suddenly the Web browser is full of ads for weight loss. And that’s the innocuous stuff.

Still, government surveillance is more disturbing. Perhaps we should look to history. Go back to our second president, John Adams, and the Sedition Act passed to silence his critics (mostly) by jailing unfriendly newspaper editors. As a revolutionary, Adams championed a free press, but he wanted it silenced when it threatened his political power.

Or look at the 1960s and the discovery of J.Edgar Hoover’s misuse of the FBI to spy on everybody, including the presidents he served. (Actually, maybe Obama should ask to see his NSA file.)

Forget the harangue on health care; the health of our democracy is on the line.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.