Obama In The Storm

US President Barack Obama uses an umbrel

What would normally be seen as good news for the president is now being spun into bad news. Given our current state of knowledge, it does not appear that the president had any direct role in the inter-agency tussle over how to describe chaotic events in Benghazi. Equally, there doesn’t seem to be – so far – any indication that the IRS Cincinnati office shenanigans reach to the Treasury, let alone the president. On the broad subpoenas for the AP in a leak investigation, the DOJ was being egged on by Congressional Republicans, although it is perfectly fair to say that the Obama administration has been far more focused on pursuing espionage charges than any recent administration.

The Watergate analogy, deployed rather cavalierly by George Will today, is the reverse of what we are seeing. The president was not directing any of this. The attorney general recused himself from the AP investigation. The IRS outrage came after repeated calls from Congressional Democrats for the IRS to give 501(c)4s extra scrutiny because they were – pretty obviously – campaign appendages. A flavor of one letter:

We strongly urge you to fully enforce the law and related court rulings that clearly reserve 501(c)(4) tax status for legitimate nonprofit organizations. And we urge you to investigate and stop any abuse of the tax code by groups whose true mission is to influence the outcome of federal elections.

On Benghazi, it seems to me we have a classic inter-agency tussle over how to present the facts – but also a reasonable process to hammer out a consensus. The Benghazi emails released yesterday do not seem that scandalous to me.

So the critique now is that the president is not sufficiently in charge, that he is a bystander to his own administration. I have to say this has some appeal as a general critique, but it isn’t borne out by these scandals. The IRS is rigorously independent of the White House – and the Cincinnati office was picked as a place to investigate the 501(c)4s because it was far away from Washington and therefore seen as more neutral. The reason to look closely at those new groups was perfectly legitimate, even if the partisan implementation is abhorrent. On the AP subpoenas, the decision was rightly made by the DOJ, independently of the president.

If we are to blame the president, are we really saying that we want a president involved in or directly monitoring these procedures?

Should he make a call on subpoenaing AP phone records? Nope. Should he be in the middle of an inter-agency fight over whom to blame for the Benghazi attack? Nope. Should he have known about and stopped partisan bias at the IRS? On that last question, arguably yes. It was in the news; there were vocal complaints about disparate treatment; there were calls to investigate. It’s not unreasonable to think that a president concerned about this should have instructed the acting head of the IRS to make sure no politics was involved.

But even that last one is a stretch. And if Obama had been that involved in the minutiae of all this, here is what the GOP would now be saying: 1. He’s another micro-managing Jimmy Carter; and 2. He’s a control freak out to persecute us. Hovering above all this, as David Ignatius notes, is the context of a Washington where everyone is so terrified of scandal, they ensure they do not have direct knowledge of what’s going on below them. Holder recused himself; Obama must now be relieved his fingerprints are nowhere near the IRS; on Benghazi, Clinton was hassled because of what a civil servant, Victoria Nuland, said in defending her turf and agency.

And hovering above it still is the media lull after Obama’s re-election. Ratings are down. This is the first blood in the water since Obama took office four and a half years ago – a record you might think would be relevant to our current discussion. So we have the frenzy; and the hyperboles; and then the slow discovery of the actual detail. All of this is part of our system. And it’s better than any alternative. But it’s a distortive lens to view politics through, when we have a still-critical long-term fiscal crisis, a climate emergency, implementation of healthcare reform, and immigration reform to focus on.

Obama has made the right call in firing the interim IRS head, releasing all the Benghazi emails, and pledging a full investigation in the IRS matter. The rest is Washington’s need for conflict and partisan advantage. But this too, I suspect, will pass, unless there really is something in there that we do not yet know.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama uses an umbrella as he walks under rain to board Marine One after visiting wounded service members at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on March 2, 2012. By Jewel Samad/Getty.)