Every president picks predecessors as role models. For Ronald Reagan, it was Calvin Coolidge. Bill Clinton chose John F. Kennedy. Barack Obama is inspired by Abraham Lincoln.
On Wednesday, Obama took several good first steps toward channeling another role model: Harry Truman. Truman’s famous tribute to the virtue of accountability — “The Buck Stops Here” — is a motto the president should continue embracing.
Obama needs firmly to take responsibility for the scandals roiling Washington just months after he proclaimed soaring ambitions in his second inaugural address. These controversies — over the administration’s response to last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya; over the IRS’s targeting of conservative advocacy groups, and over the Justice Department secretly obtaining Associated Press phone records — erode Americans’ faith and threaten to derail what little is left of the president’s second-term agenda. The defensive, evasive Obama on display recently needs to be replaced with a more transparent and accountable, take-charge president.
Regarding Benghazi, we do not believe the administration was callous about the lives of four Americans. But it’s deeply disturbing to learn of an e-mail trail that shows the lengths to which the White House, the State Department, the CIA, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence went to coordinate the untrue story of a spontaneous-protest-turned-violent that was spun by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice back in September.
“We dishonor [the fallen diplomats] when we turn things like this into a political circus,” Obama said Monday. The president was admonishing his congressional critics. But he should try delivering the same message to the many in his administration who seemed to put politics ahead of accuracy and accountability in this affair.
On Wednesday, the administration released a cache of e-mails reflecting the give and take over the Benghazi “talking points,” a useful effort to increase transparency.
At the Monday news conference, Obama also reacted to the metastasizing IRS scandal over agents hounding conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. He said the allegations were “contrary to our traditions” and that “I will not tolerate it.”
The outrage is well-placed, and shared by all fair-minded Americans. But, at least initially, the president again sounded too much like a bystander to these abuses within an incredibly powerful federal agency that ultimately reports to him through the Treasury Department. On Tuesday, the apparent targeting turned into a criminal investigation. The picture began to improve Wednesday, when Obama announced that he had forced out the acting chief of the IRS. Further steps will be needed to get to the bottom of this misuse of power and guard against its repetition, before the understandable backlash undermines the legitimate role of the IRS in scrutinizing the political activity of nonprofits.
Yet another source of outrage is the revelation that the Justice Department secretly requested two months of work and personal phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors. Far from the usual tension between the government and the media, this threatens to intimidate would-be whistle blowers and compromise journalists’ ability to inform citizens.
Once again, Obama distanced himself from the trouble, professing to have learned of it only through, ironically, media reports.
If Obama continues to affirm an image of himself as a leader who knows about his own administration only by what he reads in the newspaper, his difficulties (and the country’s) may only be beginning. Among many other challenges that lay ahead, the scrutiny that today’s triple controversies have received will pale in comparison to how the press, politicians and the public will focus on the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (a k a Obamacare). If implementation is a “huge train wreck” (as predicted, not by a critic, but by a Democratic Senate supporter, Max Baucus), the president, his party and the cause of health care reform could be badly damaged. Obama must marshal, not squander, the political capital he will need to be an effective ambassador for his signature legislation.
The last half-century has been barren of successful second presidential terms. Richard Nixon resigned; Ronald Reagan was dogged by the Iran-contra scandal; Bill Clinton was impeached; George W. Bush was bogged down by the insurgency in Iraq.
We hope Obama has now truly turned decisively away from a passive approach that could lead him down the same path, make him appear either incompetent or inconsequential, or both, and risk his becoming a true lame duck before his time. This risk, if realized, would be dangerous domestically, as it would embolden his opponents to tighten the gridlock gripping Washington. And it would be dangerous internationally if it sent a signal of weakness to allies and adversaries alike.