Google trends shows a spike of interest back in June when Snowden first went public with information detailing the NSA's vast data-collection programs. Interest in Snowden climbed even higher later that month, as publications probed the privacy implications for Americans and ramifications for his personal life.
By August interest levels had dropped to less than a quarter of that peak interest and never regained momentum, with interest in the NSA running roughly parallel to interest in Edward Snowden over time. There was another spike in interest around late October, when news broke of the NSA using its surveillance operation to spy on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
By avoiding talk of Snowden, Obama seems to think he's taking the high road. "The sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light," Obama said in his speech. There's certainly truth to that, but as any journalist who's written an anecdotal lede can tell you, you lose something when you take the human element out of your argument: people's ability to care.
Libertarian critic Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky who has been outspoken in his opposition to the NSA's intelligence-gathering practices, has a different way of looking at it. "I think there would have been absolutely no reform without Snowden," Paul said after Obama's speech. "We wouldn't have any of this, we wouldn't have any discussion."
Snowden isn't just the person who birthed the story; he also helped keep it in the conversation. A Google search for "Edward Snowden" and "hero or villain" turns up close to 10,000 results. And anyone who attended a holiday party this year was likely asked to weigh in on the dichotomy by at least one well-meaning relative.
If the reception of the president's speech on Twitter is any measure, Paul may be right about how deeply bound Snowden is to the story, or at least to the hearts and attention spans of Americans. The press conference was held just before MLK Day weekend, and practically everyone — from citizens to journalists to whole news outlets — was tweeting like they were already halfway out the door.
Was #Obama this boring when he was an adjunct lecturer? #InsufferableGasbag
— teriobrien (@teriobrien) January 17, 2014
This is the most boring coverage of the NSA scandal yet.
— DWB (@dwbronner) January 17, 2014
Watch Obama's latest boring history lecture, we mean big NSA speech LIVE: http://t.co/t3myQxQVyA
— Slate (@Slate) January 17, 2014
Some even surmised the boringness of Obama's speech was employed as a political strategy.
Obama's Administration's strategy: make NSA speech so boring and wonkish that no one cares to listen carefully.
— Jeremy (@chicagoterp) January 17, 2014
It wouldn't be the first time in 2014 that politicians have employed such a strategy. Earlier this month, Chris Christie patented the boringness strategy when the New Jersey governor spoke for nearly two hours about traffic delays on the George Washington Bridge and, mostly, how he is really, truly a Good Guy™ and how badly hurt you can get when you trust people.