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Photo: Pete Souza

President Obama is in a heap of trouble, which is not of his own making, but for which he is responsible.

First we have the ongoing dispute over security at the Benghazi consulate at the time of the terrorist attack, and the alleged attempt to manage the framing of that attack. Then there is the outrage in conservative circles over the selective focus of the IRS on the tax status of Tea Party and other right-wing groups. Finally, this just in: the Justice Department got a court to subpoena phone records of the Associated Press, without telling its management, in pursuit of information about who might be leaking confidential information about a CIS operation in Yemen.

Obama is responsible for all these problems because he’s the president: as Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here.” Yet it is highly unlikely that Obama had any personal involvement in any of these issues. In very general terms, he certainly let it be known that he wanted leaks stopped, and that he wanted our diplomatic stations to be as secure as possible within fiscal constraints imposed by Congress. It is, on the other hand, quite unlikely that there was any policy direction from Obama to the IRS about putting pressure on the Tea Party. What you have in all three cases was the bureaucrats, supposedly the docile instrument of the president, operating instead with considerable autonomy. The government cannot be successfully micromanaged.

Obama is twice gullible, and that is the source of much of his difficulty here. First, as someone who had limited executive experience before becoming president, he seems to have a hard time taking measures to maximize his control over his supposed subordinates (“Since the buck stops here, you need to do what I say”), or alternatively, insulating himself from the effects of their actions (“The buck never got to me”). As a manager, he’s just not all that good.

He’s also gullible in failing, after more than four years, to grasp just how obsessed the Republicans are with making him fail, without regard to the consequences for the country. With the Republicans in control of the House (and likely to keep it in 2014), with Republican control of the Senate quite possible in 2014, he is just not going to get anything of substance out of this Congress, but he will have Republicans snapping at his heels about any malfeasance, real or imagined. It is Obama’s imperative to give them as little to snap at as possible.

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Of the three current controversies, that of Benghazi has the least potential to hurt Obama. It is pretty clear that officers well below the grade of Secretary of State (much less President) made decision that probably seemed reasonable at the time, but events proved them wrong. Such loss of life is tragic, but hardly unprecedented: dozens of US embassy personnel were killed in the line of duty during the George W. Bush administration.

The IRS controversy is currently drawing a lot of attention. George Will has likened it to Watergate, and used it to justify continued Republican control of at least one house of Congress. And it’s clearly not good to have any administration specifically targeting its political opponents. But there are many politically active groups across the spectrum that carefully skirt the line that allows them to keep their donors private, while engaging significantly in political advocacy. This is a legitimate line of inquiry for the IRS, but they should not have been so obtuse as to focus only on the Tea Party groups. Again, it is highly unlikely that Obama had anything to do with this abuse of power, but he will be held accountable for it nonetheless.

Substantively, the most troubling of these controversies is that of covertly accessing the AP’s phone records. If this had been done by the Bush administration, progressives and Democrats would be livid. This is exactly the sort of abuse of power at the expense of the freedom of the press that many of us feared when Bush pushed through new national security legislation after 9/11. And many of us warned at the time that Democrats would be as likely as Republicans to be the violators (see my 2006 piece in LA Progressive).

One of Obama’s surprising political strengths has been his firm commitment to use the tools he has to advance US national security (conventionally defined). Thus he has been far more aggressive than Bush in the use of drone strikes, and more aggressive as well in combating leaks of classified information. This is not always a bad thing, but progressives need to be ready to condemn his abuses just as strongly as they would those of Bush.

john peeler

This is one of those cases.

John Peeler

Tuesday, 14 May 2013