No Drama Obama


Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau describes how Obama handles scandals:

The handwringers and bed wetters in the D.C. punditocracy should know that Barack Obama will never be on their timeline. He does not value being first over being right. He will not spend his presidency chasing news cycles. He will not shake up his White House staff just because of some offhand advice offered to Politico by a longtime Washingtonian or a nameless Democrat who’s desperately trying to stay relevant. And if that means Dana Milbank thinks he’s too passive; if it means that Jim VandeHei will keep calling him arrogant and petulant; if it means that Chris Matthews will whine about him not enjoying the presidency, then so be it. He’ll live.

Favreau knows him as well as anyone – and that rings true. It’s also a deep political strength. Most mortals cannot manage that no-drama glide – I sure can’t. Hillary is more easily provoked into hunkering down rather than sailing through. What troubles me, though, is not that the IRS clusterfuck and the VA backlog are signs of malevolence, but rather that they are indications of a government that doesn’t work right. And no president should glide past that.

We’ve been at war for over a decade. The imminence of vast numbers of disability and pension claims can have been no surprise for the VA. And yet they are two years’ behind schedule. And the more I read about the IRS scandal, the more it seems to me less a political campaign than complete mismanagement:

Over three years, as the office struggled with a growing caseload of advocacy groups seeking tax exemptions, responsibility for the cases moved from one group of specialists to another, and the Determinations Unit, which handles all nonprofit applications, was reorganized. One batch of cases sat ignored for months. Few if any of the employees were experts on tax law, contributing to waves of questionnaires about groups’ political activity and donors that top officials acknowledge were improper.

“The I.R.S. is pretty dysfunctional to begin with, and this case brought all those dysfunctions to their worst,” said Paul Streckfus, a former I.R.S. employee who runs a newsletter devoted to tax-exempt organizations. “People were coming and going, asking for advice and not getting it, and sometimes forgetting the cases existed.”

Much of this arises from the Supreme Court’s unleashing of so much money into the electoral process via groups that were not easy to assess as legit. But the IRS had plenty of advance notice, and yet no one seemed to foresee the challenge or the dangers of getting things wrong. If you want to know why Americans remain leery of government, it’s because of this combination of power and incompetence. All bureaucracies – private and public – are susceptible to this, but when it comes to veterans being denied benefits or political groups being effectively hazed to get the right tax designation, we have a right to question government’s expansion.

That’s the real problem here, it seems to me. The right is paranoid and delusional enough to turn all of this in their minds to a Nixonian war on them. You can’t do much about that, except note that it will likely improve their chances in 2014. But the reasonable center worries simply that government is incompetent and expensive and too complex. If liberals want to restore an activist government, this is the core area they need to focus on – especially when it comes to implementing universal healthcare.

(Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty.)