What Every Presidential Daily Briefing Should Include

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Here's an excellent thought from James Traub: "Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to argue that with the rise of the 'national security state' in the years after World War II, every president began his day with a terrifying intelligence briefing which left no doubt that his great responsibility was to protect the American people from danger, not to promote their welfare. That, too, is a balance -- a balance gone terribly awry. Perhaps Obama should occasionally let the Department of Education deliver the President's Daily Briefing. He needs to remind himself -- and us -- of why he is there."

Here's a related idea. If I could insert a footer at the bottom of a Presidential Daily Briefing, it might say something like this:

  • The odds are heavily against there being a terrorist attack today.
  • Almost 200 Americans will almost certainly die from preventable infections contracted at hospitals today.
  • Suicides are likely to take the lives of more active duty soldiers this week than terrorists. 
  • The average American is orders of magnitude more likely to die today in a car accident or by a gunshot than in a terrorist attack. 
  • America's most serious overreaction to the September 11 terrorist attacks -- the war in Iraq -- killed far more Americans than 9/11 itself, as well as killing orders of magnitude more innocent people.
  • Russian nukes, rogue asteroids, and greater than expected climate change -- all of these pose existential threats to the U.S. in a way that terrorism doesn't at present. 
  • The Pacific Rim is more important to America's national security than the Middle East.
  • No counterterrorism policy can stop all terrorist attacks.

Maybe the briefing President Obama receives already includes all of this perspective, but you wouldn't know it from his behavior. A different set of bullet points could as easily make the same point, but I'd include one statement every day: "You took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not to keep us safe." Of course, protecting and defending the Constitution ultimately keeps us much safer than habitually disregarding it, but presidents -- who conceive of the nation in four year terms, and then through the lens of their own legacy -- seldom see it that way.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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