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The two Obamas

The contradictions at the heart of the Obama presidency are finally out in the open. As a result, a man who came into office hell-bent on restoring faith in government is on the verge of inspiring a libertarian revival.

There have always been (at least) two Barack Obamas. There is the man who claims to be a nonideological problem-solver, keen on working with anybody to fix things. And there is The One: the partisan, left-leaning progressive-redeemer.

As E.J. Dionne, a columnist who can usually be counted on to make the case for Mr. Obama better than Mr. Obama can, recently wrote, the president "has been a master, as good politicians are, at presenting different sides of himself to different constituencies. In 2008, he was the man who would bring us together by overcoming the deep mistrust between red and blue America and the champion of progressive change, the liberal answer to Ronald Reagan."

The dilemma for Mr. Obama is that neither is panning out because both incarnations rely on trust. The president never had much trust among Republicans, and he lost what he had when he opted to steamroll the stimulus and, later, Obamacare, on a partisan basis.

Of course, that's not how most Democrats have seen things. They've seen the last five years as a tale of tea party-fueled madness and racism. The conviction that conservatives are crazy, stupid and/or bigoted in their opposition to Mr. Obama is what has allowed the two Obamas to exist side by side. Both iterations could blame the Republicans for any shortcomings or failures.

Then came the Benghazi debacle. The president's base, according to polls and what little MSNBC viewing I could stomach, never wavered in its conviction that Benghazi was a nonscandal. But even if you don't think it was a scandal (as I do), many partisans admit the administration's response, politically and in real time, was a mess, casting the White House as deeply political and not exactly truthful.

Cue the Justice Department, which deployed the Espionage Act against a Fox News reporter and subpoenaed the records of more than 20 Associated Press phone lines. Mr. Obama tried to play the Janus game again, saying that he was "troubled" by the reports of his own administration's actions. The media have let him get away with this bystander act when it comes to things like the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but not necessarily when it comes to threats to themselves.

And then the floodgates opened. The IRS compromised the integrity of the domestic agency that is supposed to be the most immune to politics. Worse, the White House's best defense was that it was simply asleep at the switch as the agency went rogue -- in ways that just happened to align with the president's oft-expressed ideological and political preferences.

The IRS scandal is a cancer because if you can't trust Mr. Obama to keep that agency from being politicized, you can't trust him to keep anything immune from politics -- including health care and, more relevant, the National Security Agency.

I have some sympathy for Mr. Obama in that his support of these vast data-mining programs might be a sign that he has matured in office. He naively denounced the "false choice" of compromising our ideals for the sake of security in his 2009 inaugural speech. Now he's touting such trade-offs as essential.

Or it could be that, like so many presidents before him, Mr. Obama thinks there's nothing wrong with executive power when he's the executive. Either way, the NSA story undermines trust in both Obamas.

In late May, the president announced in a speech that the war on terror was essentially over. In early June, he's defending a data-mining operation that even Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin -- an author of the Patriot Act, which authorizes surveillance by the NSA -- is denouncing as dangerous overreach he never intended.

The idealist wants credit for ending the war, while the alleged pragmatist wants to keep a surveillance apparatus that has no justification if the war on terror is truly over. Maybe he's right on the merits. The problem is that fewer and fewer people are willing to take his word for it.

Jonah Goldberg's column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. He is the author of "The Tyranny of Clichés," now on sale in paperback. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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