Since his inauguration, Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his unsuitability for the presidency, an executive office for which he lacks the managerial competence and ethical courage to lead this country in any direction at all. The disparity between his fine words and his false, fumbled, or failed deeds has betrayed the public trust. If he remains popular, he does so because he is nice and his opponents are nasty. But the presidency requires more than lofty speeches and a pleasing personality.
It is time for Democrats, liberals, progressives, and other Lefties to stop apologizing for, or explaining away, Obama’s poor performance and to stop fantasizing that each somber declaration that this or that is “unacceptable” or “intolerable” means that the exercise of his real leadership is just around the corner. Face it: four-and-a-half years into his administration, the president has failed to demonstrate to anyone that he is a leader. He long ago established that, though he may be strong enough to say what he means, he is too weak to mean what he says by action to make his word good. At this point, he is a proven disappointment as a leader without the possibility of improvement.
It is also time for Republicans, conservatives, reactionaries, and other Righties to stop indulging crack-pot conspiracy theories and cheap-shot gotcha trivia, to repudiate the loonies and liars farther to the Right, to abandon opposition to Obama for the sake of opposing Obama, and to focus on the real issues of Obama’s policies. Rants that Obama is un-American, Muslim, racist, socialist, communist, fascist, Nazi, etc., skirt the issues, give the impression that ranters have nothing of merit to say about them, and serve neither party nor national interests. It is a terrible indictment of the Republican Party that it has allowed talk-show pundits to become think-tank propagandists. If it returns to its traditional principles, it can make sensible and persuasive criticisms, and perhaps offer sensible solutions to the nation’s problems. Big “if.”
Three recent hoo-ha’s show both the failures of Obama to lead and both parties to sort out what is important from what is not as the first step toward the serious work of governing. They are: the Benghazi whoop-de-doo, the IRS flap-doodle, and the more problematic AP scandal. The first item is old news, and stale; the last two are new items, and still evolving, so I may revise my present views in light of new information.
From any perspective sized to the scope of foreign affairs, the Benghazi attack on the American consulate which resulted in the killing of four Americans is a sad but not very significant event. It is too bad that lives were lost, but Foreign Service officers take risky jobs, and getting killed is one of those risks. It is too bad that the events, not to mention, their causes, were inevitably unclear and incomplete under the circumstances and that reports, especially the early ones, were consequently inconsistent and often inaccurate. A unified government statement required inter-agency negotiations about nuanced language—a process made messy by muddled policies, murky perspectives, and mixed motives. So second-guessing the process or its results is unlikely to lead to anything suggesting incompetency, callousness, or conspiracy. And it is too bad that, in reaction to the bad news, the interested parties did what interested parties always do: try to avoid responsibility for their part in it. Not the least of those parties is Congress itself, which had refused an administration request for $300 million for increased security at US embassies and consulates. So let us hope that cynical Washingtonians of a certain persuasion get past, over, and on with it.
The attacks on the IRS for targeting political organizations, more on the Right than on the Left, for special scrutiny of requests for tax-exempt status are making much ado about very little. The IRS has often been accused, sometimes rightly, of nefarious partisan conduct under any administration. It was thus accused during the Bush administration, but the Republicans with majority control of Congress did not mind because it was their guy abusing IRS power and targeting Democrats. Now it is not their guy, but that other guy, though the man in charge was a Bush appointee.
Far from being what appears to be a partisan targeting of the out-of-power party, the selection of possibly political groups appears to be an effort, in a leaderless and mismanaged office, to manage an overwhelming caseload. The deluge resulted from two causes. One, in an interpretation perhaps intended to be generous to all, the IRS changed the law limiting tax-exempt status to organizations “exclusively” dedicated to approved educational or social purposes to those “primarily” so dedicated. Two, the Supreme Court has recently broadened the scope of permissible political campaign conduct so that groups once denied tax-exemption now appear eligible for it. Instead of handling a few hundred applications according to a precise criterion, a small staff in constant flux found itself inundated by many thousands which required decisions by a vague criterion. Under the circumstances, it resorted to a managerial shortcut: verbal profiling. So it got the idea that a group named “Tea Party Patriots for Freedom” was more likely to be engaged in impermissible political activity than a group named “Tallahassee Housewives for Better Homes and Gardens.” Between possibly generous motives and poor management, the IRS finds itself the target of bipartisan anger at the agency everyone loves to hate.
Finally, the administration’s investigation into a leak of national security information which revealed the existence of a “mole” within an Al Qaeda operation in Yemen is a more difficult issue to address. On the one hand, the circumstances are unusual because they involved a mole in an important operational unit of Al Qaeda. By disclosing his existence, the story compromised him and eliminated an intelligence resource difficult to recruit and insert in such units. Obviously, he could have provided intelligence on other terrorist efforts and helped prevent them.
On the other hand, post-disclosure efforts to identify the source of the leak of national security information have been unprecedented in kind and scope, even in a context of other extreme or excessive efforts by the Obama administration to prevent leaks or punish leakers. Past administrations have initially sought cooperation of media editors in such matters and have usually received it. In this bizarre case, the AP held the story until the US approved its publication. Only then did the government unleash its broad-scope, long-lasting, covert intrusion into the lives and livelihoods of many AP reporters.
The question is whether such an after-the-fact investigation of the press, with its chilling effect on sources, regardless of its outcome, will do the country more good than future protection given secret sources of information which can lead to the prevention of terrorist attacks. Or whether a free press is more or less important than possible information from so-called high-value assets. No doubt, the CIA found it difficult, thrilling, and satisfying to infiltrate this Al Qaeda cell with a mole. But such assistance is usually short-lived and properly suspect. The lesser problem is the high likelihood of discovery, interrogation, and execution. The greater problem is the national-security threat of counter-recruitment to act as a double agent. The risk is that intelligence agencies are prone to accept misinformation from such a source because of the value assigned him and because suspicions would be tantamount to an admission of failure.
So the calculation is: assured, long-term harm to a free press versus uncertain, short-term help in fighting terrorism. From the broader and longer perspective of national interests, the administration’s myopic paranoia about leaks and its unwillingness to work with the press in such cases disserves those interests. Congress should pass laws not only shielding the press from such intrusions into its operations, but also setting clear boundaries for national security investigations of leaks in all cases. In the meantime, Obama’s record of indifference to, or violation of, the exercise of the Constitutional right guaranteeing a free press is a legitimate concern.
All that said, Obama’s recent responses to this series of governmental escapades have shown a president with only three managerial principles: do not bring problems to me, let someone else deal with them, or let me commiserate with the victims or make a policy speech to cover my derriere. So no one told Obama about the importance and difficulty of getting the government’s first public statement on Benghazi right, the IRS actions in a sensitive area, and the extent of the incursion into reporters’ privacy.
Standing behind a microphone, denying White House knowledge or involvement, pronouncing judgment, but then doing little or nothing about them—Obama repeats a routine increasingly stale. At his best in such circumstances, he expresses compassion or outrage and shows us that he feels his pain as well as ours. But he uses his expressions of pain as a substitute for doing something of substantive value. Worse, these emotional, ineffectual responses continue to erode his credibility as a leader capable of achieving results. Even when he gives a fine speech—thoughtful, well-delivered, timely—as, belatedly, in the case of terrorism, drones, and detentions, the expectations are that no action, only implied blame for others’ inaction, will follow.
A clear sign of his managerial and ethical failures is the chasm between his training and teaching in the law, with a specialty in Constitutional law, and his disrespect for, or disregard of, many laws of the land, not least, basic civil or human rights laws. The earliest and most egregious example is the prison at the Guantanamo Naval Base. After his attempts to close it were frustrated, in large part because of his early failures to plan its closure and support allies in Congress, Obama not only gave up on the issue, but also did much to impair, not to ensure, fundamental American civil rights protections of the prisoners. Only now, when two-thirds of them have gone on a hunger strike; only now, when he fears that some will die on his watch, does Obama turn his attention to their plight, one of despair, not of hope, as American persists in degrading its pledge of allegiance to “liberty and justice for all.” There is no audacity in Obama’s delivering a lofty, late, probably ineffectual call to action to prevent additional damage to his reputation in the name of preventing further damage to the nation’s.
Worse, Obama showed no desire even to investigate American violations of national and international laws during the Iraq War. When he came to office, he knew that the Bush administration, from the President to the Vice President to the heads of the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency to the various commanders of subordinate units had violated national and international laws, in disregard of our historical record of compliance with them, especially those respecting torture. Obama mealy-mouthed the issue and, in a gesture to be a gentle leader, moved on, leaving controversy behind, even though he set ominous precedents for future presidents. He went so far to ensure his personal tranquility that he ruled out administration and non-partisan investigations.
Any extenuation of Obama’s apparently weak character and wobbly convictions is his lifelong strategic choice to try to transcend stereotypes. He had a personal reason for seeking bipartisanship: he did not want to appear partisan in a manner which might suggest that he was an Angry Black Man. Ironically, his effort to overcome this racial stereotype led him by over-reaction to another. To avoid being perceived as a black man of the angry and violent kind, Obama has chosen be perceived as a black man of the meek and mild kind. If Obama had a more sophisticated view of racial stereotypes, he would understand that he can free himself from them by acting like a person who can be both sad and mad, but, as president, commit himself, less to expressing feelings than to taking actions. Regrettably, such is beyond his character and his competence.
The result is insipid statements of disapproval of, say, IRS biased screening of application for tax exemptions or DOD ineffectiveness in dealing with sexual assaults, the numbers of which are rapidly increasing in his administration. They show him to be a feckless Chief Executive. Someone less hampered by personal identity issues would act like any good executive with his enormous responsibilities. He would have called the IRS Commissioner to the White House and fired him, not delegated the face-to-face confrontation to his Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew. He would have summoned Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh to the White House, asked why he allowed a lieutenant colonel to head a unit with a function claimed to be important, listened to the drivel of a response, then relieved him of command; he would not have given him a pass and moved on. He should have taken both actions promptly and publically, to send a clear message: ignorance about, indifference to, or ineffectuality in solving, problems means accountability, that is, actions detrimental to a continued career in public office, civilian or military. But Obama lacks the convictions and the courage which must go with them to preside or command.
Enough. We have Obama for three-and-a-half more years. We shall survive him. The economy will improve, unless Republicans act to send it into reverse as part of their mindless and malicious vendetta against a president who proves himself popular, perhaps out of reflexive sympathy for him, however ineffectual he appears to be, in response to Republicans’ intemperate words and unwise deeds. If they pursue that course, they will diminish their prospects of election success; people will blame them, not him. If they understood the man whom they loathe, they would leave him alone to self-diminish and to dismay his enablers on the Left.
This hands-off, don’t-mouth-off, approach to Obama may be a smart strategy for Republicans. If they cause the economy to deteriorate, they take the blame; if they let it ameliorate, they can take little credit. But if they let Obama alone and let his ineptitude demoralize his party and his independent supporters, they may have a chance. Instead of fulminating against a man who cannot run again, they should prepare for the likely opposition candidates who can. Facing demoralized Democrats, they have less need to rabble-rouse their fundamentalist base and should take the opportunity to develop reasonably constructive and traditionally moderate Republican positions which would not scare or offend and drive away large sectors of the electorate. Of course, this analysis ignores Hilary Clinton, who, if she remains strong—and Benghazi is not going to weaken her—seems unbeatable no matter what the economic circumstances.