Last week, a couple took advantage of an opportunity to enter an invitation-only event. What made the event more significant than the incident of the moment, was that the couple made direct contact with the President of the United States, Barack Obama, without screening or interception by the Secret Service. The event is being played down in the media as a no-harm-no-foul situation, although Congress is investigating the Secret Service on the matter. Unfortunately, the Secret Service is severely handicapped in its role, and this incident demonstrates a critical flaw in the system.
Prior to 1865, there was no specific protection service arranged for the President of the United States. The Secret Service had been created to counter counterfeiting (a role it still performs today) and protection of the President was largely left to his own resources and preferences; the assassination of President Lincoln spurred legislation to protect the President. The assassinations of Presidents Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy, however, along with a number of attempts on other Presidents (the Secret Service attempts to restrict knowledge of attempts, in order to avoid providing information to potential conspirators) has shown how difficult it can be for the Secret Service to do its job. And while some critics have blamed the agents for failure to protect the President, such objections ignore not only the training and commitment of the Secret Service, but also the evolution and unknown parameters of threats to the President, as well as the personal behavior of the President himself. As a rule, the President is a political animal, who needs public attention as much as he needs food and air, and to that end he will resist the efforts of the Secret Service which, as he perceives it, restrict his access to the media and the public, and those which damage his appearance of approachability.
That is the case here, I think. Barack Obama is inexperienced in politics, despite his comfort with the role. His whole political experience rests on direct contact with leaders and network development. As a result, Mr. Obama has been to and hosted more parties than any President in recent memory. At a time when George W Bush had to plan how to respond to 9/11, President Obama’s focus is how to spin the appearance of success in a nation with double-digit unemployment and record budget deficits resulting from a clearly-failed spending plan. As a result, anyone in a tuxedo or formal dress is counted a friend, not because of their credentials or intentions, but because they support his image. The Secret Service is, in essence, told not to get in the way of the President when he wants to do his thing. And this is not all that new in the historical record. Bill Clinton was notorious for simply leaving the protection of the Secret Service when he felt like it, and President Ford also had a habit of disappearing from time to time. Regardless of politics, Presidents do not often consider the jobs their protectors have to do; W and Reagan are unusual in that regard, which turned out to be doubly fortunate in the course of events.
Facing the prospect of daily risk of assassination is something that can hardly be easy to comprehend. Even a soldier facing war conditions knows he is not the specific target of the enemy, and he can arm himself and act in self-defense; the President is the specific target of countless enemies, and what’s worse, he must trust the skills and performance of others to defend him. Barack Obama is no more guilty of misusing the Secret Service than any other politician in what happened last week, but it is very much in his interest to protect himself by listening to his detail about their needs in protecting him.