Jacob Heilbrunn

The Obamamobile

The Obamamobile is engendering a good deal of controversy. At $1.1 million, it resembles, some say, a mobile Darth Vader helmet, black and shiny and ominous as it rolls on and on through the Midwest, where President Obama is seeking to shore up not his populist but his middle-class bona fides. With unemployment stuck over 9 percent and the stock market plunging yet again, Obama's critics say the bus is a boondoggle.

It may well be. But in this instance it is more a symbol of a Secret Service that has no restraints than a symptom of President Obama's free spending. As the late Sen. Daniel Patric Moynihan, a public servant, keen scholar and imaginative mind, pointed out in the late 1990s, America has an obsession with secrecy. It has created an enormous bureaucracy that includes the Secret Service, one that is largely unaccountable and amounts to a regulatory agency that curbs the liberties of individual citizens. Moynihan's point when it came to the Secret Sevice in particular was that it has become bloated. When is enough money to ensure that the president is safe? It can always argue that it needs more—and does.

If Moynihan could see what has happened in the wake of 9/11 he would surely be even more pertrubed. The vast expansion of the intelligence agencies has become a new form of bureaucratic empire, one consonant with the expansion of America itself across the globe. But as the Washington Post observed in a series, it is not always clear that one part of the intelligence octopus has any notion of what the other is actually doing. 

Another concomitant problem is that the intelligence services seek to shield themselves from scrutiny. Flub-ups are buried, suppressed, never happened. Then some whistle-blower blows the whistle loudly and is targeted by the 1917 Espionage Act. That is what appears to have happened at the National Security Agency—at least until the case against the agency's former employee, Thomas A. Drake, collapsed in June, much to the administration's chagrin and embarrassment. And the Obama administration has had no compunction about trying to use the Espionage Act even more promiscuously than the Bush administration. Its actions have been a textbook case of government overreaching.

But to ding Obama for his shiny new bus is a bit of a stretch as well. A similar bus is apparently in the works for the Republican presidential candidate. The badly kept secret is that the real boss when it comes to the presidency is not the president. It's the Secret Service.