If you want Obama to rein in the NSA, you're about to be disappointed

But it’s been evident all along that the White House has more or less been dragged into the reform debate. At a press conference back in August, for example, the president maintained, amid heavy criticism, that the programs are valuable and that a public skeptical about their reach simply needs reassurance that they won’t be abused.

That’s still Obama’s view. And in the days leading to Friday’s speech, Jay Carney and others in the White House have referred to the issue as one of transparency and disclosure, not of reining in government power. “The president has been clear throughout this review process that we will not harm our national security or our ability to face global threats,” Obama’s press secretary said last week. “And our intelligence-gathering activities are directly related to our ability to face those global threats and protect our national security.”

To lay the groundwork for that position, aides to the president told the Los Angeles Times this weekend that the NSA’s metadata collection scheme could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks. What’s more, Obama has adopted that “9/11 justification” for the NSA program, the paper reported.

That’s a blinking-red signal that the administration is not about to be accused of making the country more vulnerable by tampering with such a preventive weapon. Remember that George W. Bush, a Republican, walked back his warrantless wiretapping program in 2007 after a public outcry. This president, a Democrat, isn’t going to follow suit—especially given the new instability in Iraq and worries about the vacuum left by the coming pullout from Afghanistan.

All of which means Friday’s speech is going to be a piece of kabuki theater: The president is going to have to look like he’s taking meaningful action to curb the NSA’s reach when he really isn’t.