While denying involvement in high crimes and misdemeanors, the Obama administration appears to be pleading guilty to lesser crimes of bureaucratic incompetence. But that is an unsustainable position for a president who wants Americans to believe again in the power and grace of good government, particularly as it relates to the implementation of Obamacare.
–IRS agents targeted conservatives. Their bosses lied about it for months.
–Justice Department investigators violated internal guidelines to secretly spy on The Associated Press.
–White House and State Department officials minimized their role in shaping initial explanations for the Benghazi attack…
The backdrop to this parade of buffoonery is a decades-long decline in the public’s faith in government, a trend continued under Obama. Restoring the public’s trust in his governance is the only way Obama can survive the controversies with his agenda and legacy intact.
Benghazi. The IRS targeting the Tea Party. Feds snooping on the Associated Press. These dizzying controversies around the Obama administration all carry the same lesson:
All of these stories broke this month. But the Obama team has shown intolerance to dissent from the beginning. Remember during the Obamacare debate when the White House asked Americans to report any “fishy” emails about the health care bill? Linda Douglass, communications director for Obama’s Office of Health Reform, said at the time her job includes collecting “disinformation” about Obamacare — probably stuff like, if you like your health plan, you might not be able to keep it.
Richard Milhous Nixon was thin-skinned, felt persecuted by the opposition party, had a penchant for classifying political adversaries — and journalists — as “enemies,” and tried to control his image so fiercely that, ultimately, zealous aides committed illegal acts to further his re-election.
But even before that had happened — and before Nixon himself began directing a coverup — truth had become a casualty of his administration. This is the parallel between Richard Nixon and Barack Obama…
In the Obama administration, it’s not uncommon for a White House press official to scream profanely over the phone at journalists whose stories they dislike, plant questions from friendly media outlets, and deny access to briefings to reporters who ask tough questions. This administration has aggressively used the Justice Department to ferret out news leaks, declared open season on a media organization out of sync with his philosophy (Fox News), and routinely questioned the professionalism of reporters and the patriotism of the opposition political party. That disquieting sound you hear is an echo from the Nixon years…
Like Nixon, Obama also fancies himself a press critic. Although the man received press coverage in 2008 and 2012 that Nixon would have killed for, there are considerable irritants out there, including radioman Rush Limbaugh, but primarily Fox News, which Obama and his aides have attempted to delegitimize by name.
In so doing, Obama has actually gone places in public Nixon only dared go in private.
But presidents also wield power by influencing those who deeply admire, strongly identify with or highly respect them. This is referent power, which focuses on ability to exploit others’ trust.
Celebrities — with no formal power and little expertise — wield influence through referent power; some people feel so close to and trustful of celebrities that they act upon their perceptions of what a celebrity wants them to do.
“To be clear, referent power does not work through order, command or threat,” Nichols explained. “Instead, it works through suggestion and the creativity of the fawning admirer.”
We don’t know yet how involved the White House was in today’s scandals. Yet, at a minimum, they suggest a government — from the State Department to the CIA, the military leadership, the IRS and Justice — filled with sycophants under the sway of Obama’s referent power.
[I]t’s important to consider these events in their broader context of the Obama administration’s long-running war against the free press. Last year, Bloomberg reported that Attorney General Eric Holder “has prosecuted more government officials for alleged leaks under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all his predecessors combined, including law-and-order Republicans John Mitchell, Edwin Meese and John Ashcroft.” The administration has also received a failing grade for its ignoring of Freedom of Information Act requests.
Taken together, all such actions have a toll. They mean that federal officials are less likely to blow the whistle on government wrongdoing and that journalists are less likely to obtain damning information that they can pass along to the public. The suggestion by the DOJ that Rosen broke the law, if followed to its logical conclusion, would mean the end of investigative journalism in America.
During his first term, liberal journalists often remarked at how “scandal free” the administration was, despite Solyndra, Fast and Furious and other revelations. But maybe what really happened is that the administration’s concerted effort to suppress the reporting of news was actually quite successful.
I think that critiques that focus on the government’s size miss an important factor. This isn’t just a problem of bigness or smallness. It’s a problem of power.
When public servants have the power to make life difficult for narrowly defined groups of people—their political enemies, or disfavored causes, or people on the wrong side of a national discussion—they’ll end up using, and abusing, that power. It’s all but inevitable, whatever the reason. Sometimes they’ll do it because they’re out to punish their foes. Sometimes because they honestly believe it’s the fairest and most reasonable way to do their jobs. Sometimes because they’re mean and petty people. Sometimes because they think they’re making the nation a better place for all. Sometimes because they’re instructed to do so from on high. Sometimes because they’re not given enough instruction. Sometimes because they’re just plain incompetent.
It’s not that the reasons don’t matter at all. They do. But in some ways the particular reasons miss the larger point. Power will find a reason. It always does.
When I look at Obama’s travails, he seems to be suffering less from a Nixon complex than a Harding syndrome, after the ill-fated Warren G. Harding…
Harding has been blamed for an illegal kickback scheme at the Veterans Bureau and the infamous Teapot Dome scandal that sent his secretary of interior, Albert Fall, to prison. In fact, Harding was involved in no wrongdoing whatsoever regarding these scandals. When Harding got the first whiffs of illicit activity, he was outraged and demanded answers. A trusting man, he took those involved at their word and proceeded to play his weekend golf games, and then took a trip to Alaska, on which he died. Because he had failed to take more decisive action, history has blamed him for scandals that developed after his death. Harding’s lack of action ruined his presidency…
In the tradition of Harding, Obama played golf this past weekend and instructed his staff to largely ignore the emerging scandals. Yet as many presidents discover to their chagrin, inattention won’t end a scandal; it’s more likely to do the opposite.
Obama debuted on the political scene with an atmosphere of messianic excitement. A July 2008 column by Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle asked, with no detectable sarcasm, whether Obama was a “Lightworker” — described as “that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet.”
These moments, when self-righteousness shines from every pore, are probably when politicians should be most careful — and since they rarely are, these are the moments when the public should be most vigilant. For almost every scandal is rooted in the belief that what you and your allies are doing is so good, so noble and so necessary that it can justify some moral shortcuts…
Good screenwriters know every villain believes he is the hero of his own story. The human capacity for self-justification can be pretty epic even outside a highly charged political atmosphere in which each side sees itself as the living embodiment of everything that makes America great — and the other side as a motley amalgamation of petty, corrupt, selfish special interests.
And now, we see what happens when an administration and the ranks of the federal bureaucracy become filled with folks who are convinced they can cut some corners because they’re doing the Lord’s work. Or, perhaps, the Lightworker’s work.
The fact that likability covers a multitude of sins shouldn’t surprise us. Nor should we be surprised that perception is reality. As Postman also argued, “the dishonor that now shrouds Richard Nixon results not from the fact that he lied but that on television he looked like a liar.”
Richard Nixon was never Mr. Charisma, and he eventually grew to look like a crook. But that wasn’t always the case. Don’t forget, Nixon was (to borrow a phrase) likable enough to win his 1972 re-election by a landslide. But there is something about being relentlessly attacked — and watching your power slowly erode — that takes the polish off of even the world-class politicians. And when the press turns on you, too, you’re probably toast.
And it may be that that the decline of Barack Obama is likewise a work in progress. This is not to say he will meet the same fate as Richard Nixon, but it is to say that Nixon didn’t become Nixon over night, but over years. We are now on just week two of the convergence of three scandals. And there is reason to believe we might see a week three.