President Obama’s allies are alternately wincing over, or shaking their heads at, the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act and its website, as well as disclosures that U.S. intelligence agencies spied on some of our closest allies. Many of the president’s supporters are probably wishing they could avoid watching news programs altogether, hoping the damaging reports will just go away. The eavesdropping on the cell-phone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande (the latter heading the only European nation supportive of the initial U.S. plan for airstrikes on Syria) has been particularly hard to defend because it puts the United States (and Obama) in an enormously awkward position.
What makes these problems more troublesome than some other controversies is that they go to the question of Obama’s competence, rather than to differences of policy or ideology. On policy disputes, one side may like a decision and the other may dislike it, often resulting in a political wash. However, competence issues cut across the partisan and ideological spectrum, and they can have a real impact on independents and moderates. These voters, who by definition don’t look at issues and events through a partisan or ideological prism, are normally comfortable standing behind the proverbial plate, calling balls and strikes as they see them. They usually don’t root for one side or the other.
While it is certainly understandable that no president is clued in on all of the sources and methods of various intelligence agencies, the fervor surrounding the surveillance issue has risen to the point of comedic fodder. On Monday night, Daily Show host Jon Stewart framed the White House line that Obama was “out of the loop,” or unaware of the surveillance of allies, by noting, “There appear to be very few loops he’s in.” Why was the National Security Agency or any U.S. intelligence agency eavesdropping on Merkel? In truth, the answer to an age-old question, cleaned up for this publication, applies here: “Why does a dog lick his private parts?” The answer is always, “Because he can.”