We are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate. The reputation of the Obama White House has, among conservatives, gone from sketchy to sinister, and, among liberals, from unsatisfying to dangerous. No one likes what they’re seeing. The Justice Department assault on the Associated Press and the ugly politicization of the Internal Revenue Service have left the administration’s credibility deeply, probably irretrievably damaged. They don’t look jerky now, they look dirty. The patina of high-mindedness the president enjoyed is gone.
Something big has shifted. The standing of the administration has changed…
The president, as usual, acts as if all of this is totally unconnected to him. He’s shocked, it’s unacceptable, he’ll get to the bottom of it. He read about it in the papers, just like you…
What happened at the IRS is the government’s essential business. The IRS case deserves and calls out for an independent counsel, fully armed with all that position’s powers. Only then will stables that badly need to be cleaned, be cleaned. Everyone involved in this abuse of power should pay a price, because if they don’t, the politicization of the IRS will continue—forever. If it is not stopped now, it will never stop. And if it isn’t stopped, no one will ever respect or have even minimal faith in the revenue-gathering arm of the U.S. government again.
The president derided “tea baggers.” Vice President Joe Biden compared them to “terrorists.” In more than a dozen speeches Mr. Obama raised the specter that these groups represented nefarious interests that were perverting elections. “Nobody knows who’s paying for these ads,” he warned. “We don’t know where this money is coming from,” he intoned.
In case the IRS missed his point, he raised the threat of illegality: “All around this country there are groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, who are running millions of dollars of ads against Democratic candidates . . . And they don’t have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are. You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation.”
Short of directly asking federal agencies to investigate these groups, this is as close as it gets. Especially as top congressional Democrats were putting in their own versions of phone calls, sending letters to the IRS that accused it of having “failed to address” the “problem” of groups that were “improperly engaged” in campaigns. Because guess who controls that “independent” agency’s budget?
The IRS is easy to demonize, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It got its heading from a president, and his party, who did in fact send it orders—openly, for the world to see.
Imagine for a moment if black civil-rights organizations, gay groups, or teachers’ unions loudly complained to members of Congress and the press that the IRS was discriminating against them. How long would it take for the White House to investigate? Answer honestly: Minutes? Hours? Okay, maybe days if there was an attack on one of our embassies that the administration was busy ignoring. Obviously, it would take longer for Obama to actually get to the bottom of the accusations and, if they’re true, punish those responsible. But you can be sure that the moment he heard credible allegations of political persecution of liberal groups — outfits with “progressive” or “civil rights” in their names — he would have moved heaven and earth to make things right.
But when such allegations came from the right, the response from the president — and from a press corps that until recently acted like a king’s guard — ranged from smirks and eye-rolling to flat-out lies and virtual applause…
He’s made it clear that people who disagree with him are fevered, illegitimate, weird, creepy, dangerous, stupid, confused, ignorant, or some other adjective you might assign to a revamped version of the Seven Dwarfs. He’s explained that he doesn’t mind “cleaning up after” Republicans but he doesn’t want to hear “a lot of talking” from them. The time for democratic debate is always behind us with an administration that began with the mission not to let a crisis go to waste, for as Obama said in his second inaugural address, “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.”…
So fine. Obama probably didn’t order the IRS to keep his opponents from talking. But these bureaucrats certainly acted like ones he’d been waiting for.
The recent spate of Washington scandals has some liberals finally confessing in public what many of them have said privately for a long time. The Obama administration is arrogant, insular, prone to intimidation of adversaries, and slovenly when it comes to seeing that rules are followed. Indeed, the Obama White House is a strange place, and it’s good that its operational model is now likely to be finally dissected by the media…
But it was Chris Matthews of MSNBC who cut even deeper in his Hardball show on Wednesday. A former speechwriter for President Carter, he wondered if Obama “really doesn’t want to be responsible day-to-day for running” the government. He savaged the White House for using “weird, spooky language” about “the building leadership” that must approve the Benghazi talking points. “I don’t understand the model of this administration: weak chiefs of staff afraid of other people in the White House. Some undisclosed role for Valerie Jarrett. Unclear, a lot of floating power in the White House, but no clear line of authority. I’ve talked to people who’ve been chief of staff. They were never allowed to fire anybody, so they weren’t really chief of staff.”…
The Obama White House management team doesn’t share the bunker mentality of the Nixon White House (though there are similarities). Nor does it have the frat-house atmosphere of the early Clinton White House, or the “happy talk” air of unreality of the latter George W. Bush administration. But its “all politics, all the time” ethos demands scrutiny now that the scandals are mounting and its shortcomings are becoming all too clear.
Obama says: Trust me, I do not advocate universal preschool simply to swell the ranks of unionized, dues-paying, Democrat-funding teachers. Trust me, I know something not known by the social scientists who say the benefits of such preschool are small and evanescent.
Obama says: Trust me, the science of global warming is settled. And trust me that, although my plans to combat global warming, whenever the inexplicable 16-year pause of it ends, would vastly expand government’s regulatory powers, as chief executive I guarantee that these powers will be used justly.
Obama says: Trust me. Although I am head of the executive branch, I am not responsible for the IRS portion of this branch…
Because Obama’s entire agenda involves enlarging government’s role in allocating wealth and opportunity, the agenda now depends on persuading Americans to trust him, not their lying eyes. In the fourth month of his second term, it is already too late for that.
That ubiquitous scrutiny makes it even more important that a president remain resolute and clear-eyed about his mission. It is critical that he look bigger than his critics. And, as is always the case in politics, that he project optimism about his leadership.
It is in that regard that Obama has faltered in the days since the story of the misdeeds at the IRS broke, cranking up the political and media intensity. One can argue whether the White House was too slow to respond and stanch the bleeding. In some ways, that is a question for lawyers, who can debate how cautious a president must be in responding to such allegations. But it is hard to disagree that this president has lost his footing in the way he presents himself…
But a successful president has to appear in control of events, or at least on top of them. If people think their president has lost that control, they get frightened. And if Obama lets that perception take hold, he may look back on this week with a deep regret, and perhaps an abiding sense of a moment lost.
The investigations and recriminations pose a double threat to a presidency already in jeopardy of irrelevance. Not only does the president suffer when he loses control of the metanarrative that determines the assumptions behind media coverage of his administration. He also suffers by looking passive, aloof, and academic. Lately the top officials of the executive branch have seemed always to be in another room, on another call. Hillary Clinton says she was not aware of cables warning of lax security in Benghazi. Eric Holder says he is not sure when he recused himself from the investigation into the AP leak, or if he told the White House, or, really, of anything. Obama says he learned about the IRS IG investigation from the news. He says the Benghazi talking points were a matter of dispute between State and CIA, not the White House. A Martian reading the statements of senior officials on subjects of public controversy would conclude that the U.S. government operates at the whims of midlevel career personnel. But why pick on Martians. Chris Matthews concludes the same thing: “The steering wheel doesn’t control the car anymore.”
The president, however, isn’t even in the car. He is a bystander, a commenter on the passing scene. He moves only when compelled by outside forces. Domestic policy was ceded to Congress during the first half of his term. Only after Scott Brown’s upset in 2010 did Obama take a lead part in passing his health care law. The threat of American default forced him into botched negotiations with John Boehner on the debt ceiling. His tax increases on the wealthy came about only because the entirety of the Bush tax rates were set to expire on Jan. 1, 2013, anyway. On foreign policy he was pulled kicking and screaming into Libya, joining the British and French in overthrowing Qaddafi only when it became clear they were prepared to go to war without him. The Syrian civil war has raged for years, 90,000 have died, as the president does what little he can to convince the Russians to abandon Assad. When natural or man-made disasters strike Americans, he acts, but not before. He is a reactive president, whom only Reinhold Niebuhr could love.
One of his sympathizers describes him, favorably, as “Barack the Buck-Passer.” And pass bucks he has, trillions of them in fact, mostly in the direction of the American people and obstructionist Republicans. Still, Obama’s supporters must recognize, one can only buck-pass for so long. There comes a reckoning of accounts. Have we finally reached that moment, in the confluence of the Benghazi and IRS and AP stories, when Obama no longer will be able to blame his predecessor and adversaries for his own failings?
We clearly have a values problem in the federal government. We clearly have a few or many agencies where the leaders don’t emphasize that workers need to check themselves, or risk losing what remains of the people’s trust.
The rest of us just have to be more wary. For example, I generally support the little behavioral nudges that Cass Sunstein describes in his outstanding book “Simpler” — the subtle policy shifts that induce people to save more, or eat healthier. I’d trust somebody with a minimalist disposition like Sunstein to implement these policies. But I wouldn’t necessarily trust the people at the I.R.S. or Justice Department to implement them. They’d take a nudge and expand it into a shove.
And what are we to make of financial regulatory reform and the new health care law? In a culture of unrestraint, will federal regulators use these rule-writing opportunities to expand their reach beyond anything now imagined?
People can only have faith in a government that self-restrains, and there’s little evidence of that now.
While “others may get distracted by chasing every fleeting issue that passes by,” he said, “the middle class will always be my number one focus, period.”
“You can’t make up these narratives,” he remarked. “This is beyond any conservative’s wildest dream.”