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From the Commentary section of The Chicago Times
Barack Obama's presidency is spiraling downward
By Charles Lipson 11:44 a.m. CDT, June 17, 2014
"Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job." That was George W. Bush's infamous compliment to Michael Brown, his then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It came as New Orleans lay flooded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with thousands of homeless victims trapped in the Superdome. Brown was not doing "a heckuva job." He was failing badly, and the public knew it.
What made Bush's accolade clunk so loudly? Why do we remember it years later? Because that single, maladroit phrase captured so much that had gone wrong with Bush's presidency. He praised incompetent managers instead of firing them, and he seemed cheerfully clueless about what was happening on the ground.
The "heckuva job," meme stuck to Bush's presidency and dragged it down. So did his premature victory lap on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, standing in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner. Those were simple, powerful moments that encapsulated larger problems. There's a lesson here, and it's one that should worry President Barack Obama.
The Obama administration, which had few serious setbacks during its first term, is now engulfed by them: the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the unraveling story about Benghazi, Libya, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, the casual (and ignored) red line in Syria, Iraq's disintegration after America left abruptly, al-Qaida's resurgence, the secret waiting list and falsified data at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Taliban prisoners swap. The president's defenders have explanations for each of them, but the problems are cumulating.
Several themes are emerging. The question is whether they will congeal into a clear, negative image of Obama and his presidency.
One obvious theme is that Obama, like Bush, is a poor manager. He doesn't pay attention to crucial details, surrounds himself with sycophants and doesn't hold anyone accountable. The poster child for these deficiencies is Kathleen Sebelius, who ran Health and Human Services during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Sebelius failed to anticipate the HealthCare.gov disaster and the president never inquired. When the rollout failed disastrously, Obama calmly announced he was angry, but retained Sebelius. (He did the same with Gen. Eric Shinseki at Veterans Affairs.)
Eventually, the White House appointed a techie to get HealthCare.gov running and, once that was done, falsely claimed everything was fine. It wasn't. The website still lacks basic security and has no "back end" to pay the insurance companies.
That brings us to the second theme: the White House maintains an arms-length relationship with the truth. The press, so docile during Obama's first term, now smells deceit and has begun doing its job: questioning the administration. The president is being drawn in and tarnished. That was clearest when the IRS scandal broke. Obama initially said he was "outraged" and asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate. Holder appointed a mid-level official to head the inquiry. She does not inspire confidence. She's a generous donor to President Obama's campaigns and does not specialize in white-collar crimes. The FBI, also under Holder, didn't bother to question the IRS targets for months. Obama's anger vanished as soon as the public stopped paying attention. In fact, he concluded there is "not even a smidgen of corruption" at the IRS. How does he know? The DOJ investigation is ongoing and supposedly secret. The IRS and White House won't cooperate with congressional investigators, and the IRS official at the center of the scandal, Lois Lerner, has taken the Fifth Amendment. Nothing to see here. Move along.
What might turn this parade of problems into an indelible image are the most recent scandals: the systemic corruption at the Veterans Affairs, quickly followed by the controversial swap of five Taliban prisoners for a captured U.S. soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. At the VA, the president clung to his appointed leader, Shinseki, until the public was marching with pitchforks. In the Taliban case, the president did not consult senior military and intelligence officials and refused to inform Congress in advance. As with Benghazi, the White House held its information tight and kept changing its story.
The low point came when the president embraced Sgt. Bergdahl's parents in the Rose Garden. Thinking the public would cheer Bergdahl's release, Obama took a victory lap. Bad call. The administration has been showered with tough questions instead of confetti. Why did Obama release a murderers' row of Taliban generals? Why did he refuse to tell anyone in Congress beforehand, as he was legally required to do? Is the president floating a trial balloon to empty Guantanamo? Could the newly released Taliban plan deadly attacks? Will the swap encourage Islamic terrorists to kidnap other Americans? The White House is still fumbling for answers.
Meanwhile, doubts are growing about the president's competence and honesty. When a meme like that takes hold, it is marked with indelible ink.
Charles Lipson is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
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