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House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, got in front of the debate in early June when he declared that Mr. Snowden was “a traitor” for disclosing information that “puts Americans at risk” and “shows our adversaries what our capabilities are.”

That put Mr. Boehner in line with outspoken critics such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, who has accused Mr. Snowden of committing “an act of treason.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat and a longtime critic of government surveillance, stopped short of using the word “patriot” in reference to Mr. Snowden during a July 23 speech in Washington at the Center for American Progress.

The congressman did say, however, that Mr. Snowden’s actions “lit the surveillance world on fire.”

“Several provisions of secret law were no longer secret, and the American people were finally able to see some of the things I’ve been raising the alarm about for years,” Mr. Wyden said. “And when they did, boy were they stunned, and boy were they angry.”

The problem, some observers say, is that the media and elected officials in Washington remain too focused on questions about Mr. Snowden’s character to engage in the sort of deep policy discussion that Mr. Obama claims to be so eager to have.

“The whole debate over whether Snowden is hero or a traitor is a bit of a sideshow and that it ultimately doesn’t matter very much,” said Gene Healy a vice president and analyst at the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. “The real issue is what he revealed.”

“If he turned out to be a Chinese spy,” Mr. Healy said, “the government has still now admitted that this program exists and that’s what we ought to be focused on, debating the program, whether it’s legal, whether it’s useful and whether it’s dangerous.”