Politically Thinking: Missteps weaken Obama’s hand

Successful presidencies are characterized by effective management of the administration. While the president cannot be expected to intervene in every instance of bureaucratic malfeasance and incompetence, when a pattern of such activities continues over time, the impression created is that of a president who is not on top of the job. When the sequestration budget cuts went into effect in late March, President Obama demonstrated the same passive-aggressive approach to Congress that has characterized much of his time in office. While Obama denounced sequestration in campaign-style speeches around the country, his administration made few attempts to work with Congress to develop alternatives. Granted, House Republicans may not have been interested in any such alternatives, but the White House did not stop some federal agencies from implementing sequestration in ham-handed ways, such as the FAA’s furloughs of air traffic controllers that resulted in delays for the traveling public. The end result was that Congress passed legislation exempting the FAA from sequestration, allowing Republicans to gain political credit with travelers, while Obama has done nothing beyond rhetoric to respond to the cuts in programs for lower-income Americans.
Accounts of the FBI’s and CIA’s responses to intelligence passed on by Russian security services regarding Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, indicate that those agencies’ approaches to intelligence sharing continue to be characterized by the “silo” and “stovepipe” mentalities that were criticized so heavily after the 9/11 attacks. Also, the limited intelligence that was obtained by federal agencies was apparently not shared with state and local officials in Massachusetts, who could have used that information to investigate Tsarnaev and his activities. Again, while the White House was not aware of this intelligence before April 15, the subsequent criticism of federal security agencies does not help the administration to portray itself as an effective manager of homeland security.
Investigations by Congress and the press into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, indicate that the administration may have had a much more sanguine view of the security situation in Benghazi than was actually the case, in part because of its desire to portray conditions in Libya as quickly returning to normal — not unlike some of the Bush White House’s approaches to Iraq soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In any case, the administration’s response to Benghazi seems to have been conditioned as much by politics as by foreign policy considerations, with political staff in the White House and the State Department trying to put a much different spin on the events on the ground from that portrayed by the career diplomats in the field.
Last week, the Internal Revenue Service admitted that it had subjected conservative political organizations to especially searching scrutiny of their applications for tax-exempt status, in part selecting organizations for review because their names included words such as “Tea Party” or “patriots.” These reviews, which raise memories of the Nixon White House’s “enemies lists,” do not help the IRS’s reputation for probity and even-handedness, and could turn out to be a major headache for the administration, especially considering the IRS’ major role in the implementation of health care reform.
The combination of stories about the FAA, FBI, CIA, IRS and State Department raises continued questions about the competence of the administration’s middle-level appointees, and the motivations of its political appointees. The congressional and press responses to these stories will make it difficult for Obama to control the news cycle in the weeks ahead. A president forced to play defense is a politically weakened president.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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