Something happened to Barack Obama on the way to the White House. He became the president.
Now that may seem like a tautology, or a wise guy’s aside. But the remark is meant seriously. Presidents look at the world differently than senators do. They look at the world differently from any other soul on Earth.
All of which explains the president’s resolute belief in secrecy, despite his views as a senator, despite the disbelief and disapproval of many of his most ardent supporters. He believes in openness in the regulatory process and in much of the day-to-day business of government, including the online publication of White House visitor logs. He has released the George W. Bush administration memorandums on torture policies.
But a lot of the things that once seemed clear to him, especially in the national-security sphere, aren’t quite so obvious on the side of the Oval Office desk where the drawers are.
All of this underlines two very important characteristics of the modern presidency.
The first is the struggle, dating to Woodrow Wilson, over the virtue or menace of secrecy. The second is the inclination — and here Obama and Richard Nixon are the reigning champions, though they are not alone — to feel this way: If you knew what I knew, you would do what I am doing.
First, the struggle of values.
Woodrow Wilson won the world’s hearts, and the revulsion of the world’s diplomats, when, in the shorthand of 1918, he called for “open covenants openly arrived at.” This notion was imbedded in the very first of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the utopian view of the post-World War I world that was seized upon equally by idealists worldwide — and by the defeated (Germany), the disillusioned (the Soviet rebels of the Russian Revolution) and the dispossessed (among them Ho Chi Minh, then an unknown nationalist seeking freedom from France for colonial Indochina).