National Journal: Obama facing crisis over incompetence

Well, it could be worse.  Voters could take in all of the scandals and controversies swirling around the White House lately — IRS, NSA, Fast and Furious, Benghazi, State Department cover-ups and obstruction of IG probes, and so on — and assume that the issue is corruption rather than incompetency.  In that sense, Josh Kraushaar’s analysis might be good news, relatively speaking:


The administration is facing a crisis of competence. At a time when trust in government is already at an all-time low, the events of this past week illustrate the limits of this president’s power. The White House seems more comfortable stage-managing the news than dealing with the uncomfortable crises that inevitably crop up. (If there’s anything to learn from the Benghazi crisis, it was the administration’s attentiveness to detail in how to avoid blame in the aftermath of the crisis, but a lack of focus in how to react as the crisis was occurring.)

The other concerning sign, is that politics are getting in the way of smart policymaking. Wary of the last war in the Middle East, Americans don’t want the United States to intervene in Syria. The White House, heeding the polls, gladly obliged, even figuring out ways to forestall proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people – the red line that the president famously set. Obama doesn’t want to say anything to take sides between the Egyptian president he backed and the growing throngs of protesters – and then take ownership in a crisis that’s showing no signs of abating. Politically speaking, it’s a lose-lose situation.

On health care, with the 2014 midterms approaching and control of the Senate in play, the administration decided to buy time by delaying the employer mandate until after the elections. Former HHS spokesman Nick Papas said the delay was “about minimizing paperwork, not politics.” But it’s awfully politically convenient to delay implementation of a law that’s been growing more unpopular and whose implementation is shaping up to be a “train wreck,” in the words of Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat.


Kraushaar’s colleague Margot Sanger-Katz believes that the White House chose incompetence as the lesser of two evils on ObamaCare:

It shows that when it comes to the health care law — the president’s signature legislative accomplishment — the administration can’t win.

The White House appeased an angry business community with its decision to postpone a requirement that large employers offer their workers health insurance or pay a fine. The rule had angered even businesses that already insure their workers.  It gave Republican opponents ammunition to attack the law, claiming it slowed economic growth. Its delay is likely to quiet some of those particular critiques, at least until after the 2014 election.

But the decision will still be politically useful to the health law’s political foes, who are now painting the administration as incompetent. A flood of press releases Tuesday night described the law as “unworkable,” its implementation a “train wreck,” and the delay as evidence that all of Obamacare should be taken off the books. “This is a clear acknowledgment that the law is unworkable, and it underscores the need to repeal the law and replace it,” said House Speaker John Boehner in a statement.

Sanger-Katz actually blames Congressional Republicans for forcing Obama to choose incompetence, because they made ObamaCare too “toxic” to amend properly.  It wasn’t Republicans who shoved the ACA through Congress even though polls showed time and again that it wasn’t a popular bill, nor Republicans who used an arcane procedural tactic to pass it into law. Democrats made sure that Republicans had no stake in the final bill with their tactics and their rhetoric, so crying over a lack of cooperation from the GOP to rescue the bill from its original incompetence is just a little rich.


Speaking of incompetence, a new Pew poll suggests that Obama may be reaching the level of his predecessor, in terms of voter perception (via the Washington Examiner):

Public views of Barack Obama today are very different from those of George W. Bush at about this point in his second term. Obama’s job rating is in positive territory, while Bush’s tilted negative.

But a look at the one-word descriptions of the two men finds some common ground. Most notably, the word incompetent appears high on the one-word list for each.

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, conducted June 12-16, variations on the word good were used most often to characterize impressions of Obama. But incompetent shows up frequently as well. In fact, it tops the list of negative terms.

In July 2005honest was used most often to describe Bush, followed by incompetent and arrogant.

A couple of caveats are in order here.  First, Pew warns that these aren’t percentages but the actual numbers from the responses of open-ended questions by the pollsters.  In other words, it’s not that 27% of the 769 people asked about Obama called him “incompetent,” it’s 27 respondents that did, compared to 26 respondents for Bush that did.  Obviously, that’s a very small percentage of the sample — 3.5% — and more or less meaningless in terms of measuring major trends in voter perception. Also, the Bush numbers come from a poll taken two months before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and a year before it became apparent that Iraq was spinning out of control, two events that greatly impacted voter perceptions of Bush’s competence.


The Obama administration has been damaged by the scandals of the past two months, but it’s still too early to see if they will cause the kind of long-term damage Bush suffered from those two chapters in his presidency.  It may well be that incompetence is the better option in terms of perception for Obama and his White House, depending on what the investigations find.

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