I had the same thought as Matt Lewis when reading through the news this morning. There’s too much smoke now from the IRS, DOJ/AP, and Benghazi scandals to pretend there’s no fire. If you’re sympathetic to O, it’s time to shift messages from “what fire?” to “Obama should have done more to put out these fires set by other people,” which conveniently leaves Bambi in the virtuous role of firefighter. It’s a classic plea bargain: He’s guilty of negligence, maybe, but of nothing more serious. Lewis:
The media is helping. Obama isn’t a bad guy, he’s merely out of the loop, we’re told. He is “President Passerby,” as Dana Milbank calls him. And besides, as David Axlerod said this morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” government is just so vast that nobody can really know what’s going on (as one of my Twitter followers noted, why didn’t Bush think of that to explain Abu Ghraib away?)…
Being out of the loop doesn’t exonerate him in my mind (though it might in the public’s.) The buck is supposed to stop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — and it makes little difference to me whether you order — or inspire (and tolerate) — a culture of corruption where “Chicago-style” politics are carried out with a wink and a nod.
But people are more forgiving of a bumbling leader than of a corrupt politician. And staffers and bureaucrats can always be dispatched.
Yes, Axelrod really said that, but let’s save that for another post. Lewis is right that Milbank’s piece on the “passive president” is the big one in this vein this morning, but the meme is popping up elsewhere. Here’s his old pal Gibbsy:
Gibbs said the White House should have immediately proposed a bipartisan panel of former IRS commissioners to investigate, and criticized the administration’s response as “exceedingly passive.”
“I think they would have a much better way of talking about this story rather than simply kind of landing on the, ‘well if this happened, then we’ll look at it’,” Gibbs said. “It sounds exceedingly passive to me.”
Saying that Obama has been passive this week in reacting to the IRS scandal overlooks the fact that, by Carney’s own admission, people in the White House must have been aware that tea-party groups were complaining of unfair treatment last year. Did anyone pick up the phone to inquire, or were they content not to know in case it was true?
More passivity and disinterest from Firefighter Obama at Politico:
Experts and former officials say the White House’s laissez-faire approach to the Justice Department — adopted in part as a response to the politicization there under President George W. Bush — allowed prosecutors’ naturally aggressive tendencies to burst through unchecked…
”This White House, out of concern to distance itself from what was seen as excess politicization of DOJ by the Bush administration, had not engaged DOJ at all on leak cases,” said Columbia University law professor David Pozen, who spent several months conducting a major review of the federal government’s love-hate relationship with national security leaks. ”
In previous White Houses, even those railed publicly against leaks, officials sent “cautionary signals to the Justice Department … urging restraint and sensitivity to political, policy and constitutional concerns,” Pozen said. But the administration’s distancing policy, said Pozen, meant that prosecutors were “being given more leash than they had previously to do what they do.”
That was part of Carney’s defense yesterday vis-a-vis the IRS too. The White House had to maintain “distance” from the agency, he said, in order to eliminate any risk of “politicization,” which stands reality on its head insofar as the IRS was apparently already politicized. Maintaining distance simply enabled it. If this is seriously their defense to malfeasance in the executive branch, that they can’t meddle to try to stop it for fear of somehow tainting the malfeasor with politics, then there’s really no limit to what their underlings can get away with. And if that’s the case, that they’re deliberately keeping their distance from bad actors below them, then what’s the difference between “passivity” or “disinterest” and intentionally looking the other way? The cornerstone of Obama’s public persona since day one has been his “above the fray” adult-in-the-room shtick; almost without fail, if there’s an attack to be launched on his ideological opponents, it’s tasked to some surrogate in order to keep O’s hands clean. That’s not “passivity,” it’s a deliberate strategy to inoculate himself from “politics as usual” in order to protect his brand as some sort of genteel, post-partisan non-politician. So why give him the benefit of the doubt now? If he really didn’t know all of this was going on, why not assume that that’s because his staff is instructed to keep stuff like this away from him? And if that’s true, what’s the difference between “negligence” and intent?
Here’s Chris Matthews lamenting that Obama doesn’t seem to have his hands on the wheel of the ship of state. That’s fine; the important question is why. Is it because, as the press so often claimed about Bush, he’s “incurious” about what his underlings are doing? Or is it because the people steering know what direction he wants to go in?