The Unbalancing

Column: The week Obama’s luck finally vanished

May 17, 2013

Since the presidential election we have been told, repeatedly and gleefully, that the Republican Party is doomed, that demographics and history are on the side of President Barack Obama and the progressive movement, that the GOP base is unhinged, and that Tea Party radicalism threatens to upend conservative hopes not only in 2014 but also in 2016. But in the space of one week that story, true or not, has been eclipsed by another one: Washington has turned on Obama. A trio of scandals has given the Republicans "an issue to seize on." Nixon’s shade haunts the Justice Department in D.C. and the halls of the IRS office in Cincinnati, Ohio. Mistakes were made. Woes have onset. Questions are raised. Doubts sown.

Fascinating to watch the birth of a narrative. And fascinating to watch, as well, as a White House known for its ability to influence the media is suddenly thrown off its game. A president whose foremost concern is to "balance all these equities" finds his administration perilously unbalanced indeed.

Last week, for the first time in memory, Obama’s good luck was replaced by bad. First there was the gripping testimony of Gregory Hicks describing the night of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Then came Jonathan Karl’s confirmation of Stephen F. Hayes’s story that the changes to the Benghazi talking points in the days after that Sept. 11, 2012, attack were much more "stylistic" than the White House spokesman had said. Then, in the run-up to the release of an inspector general report, the IRS leaked that officials had singled out groups with conservative and freedom-loving names. Then the Associated Press objected to the seizure of phone records by the Justice Department. Not even MSNBC could spin that.

At least for the moment, tales of the heartless and intolerant and extremist Republicans, and of the victims of their budget cuts and nativism and radical adherence to the Second Amendment, have vanished from front-pages and television screens. Might as well enjoy the respite. For the White House is clearly attempting to regain the initiative: ordering Chuck Schumer to re-introduce a media shield law the president hasn’t given a whit about for years; accepting the resignation of an acting IRS director who was scheduled to vamoose anyway; releasing 100 pages of Benghazi emails; and calling on Congress to fund additional security measures for U.S. diplomatic outposts. The West Wing, Mike Allen learned from his latest mind meld, has determined it is "back on offense." Mojo? Back too. Yes, "these issues may linger." And "there will always be distractions." But "key priorities" such as "immigration reform" are "staying on track." POTUS is talking jobs in Baltimore. What more do you need to know?

A lot more, actually, and on a variety of topics, and at a level of detail that has not been forthcoming. There is the extent of the IRS targeting of conservatives, and to what extent administration officials may have been aware of the practice. There are additional Benghazi emails to read, and there is additional information to be gleaned from the State Department and its former officials. There is the question of the breadth and depth of the Justice Department inquiry into the Associated Press. Plenty of ink waiting to be spilled and bytes to be processed by a media that seems finally to have awakened, if only fitfully and briefly, from a long slumber.

The investigations and recriminations pose a double threat to a presidency already in jeopardy of irrelevance. Not only does the president suffer when he loses control of the metanarrative that determines the assumptions behind media coverage of his administration. He also suffers by looking passive, aloof, and academic. Lately the top officials of the executive branch have seemed always to be in another room, on another call. Hillary Clinton says she was not aware of cables warning of lax security in Benghazi. Eric Holder says he is not sure when he recused himself from the investigation into the AP leak, or if he told the White House, or, really, of anything. Obama says he learned about the IRS IG investigation from the news. He says the Benghazi talking points were a matter of dispute between State and CIA, not the White House. A Martian reading the statements of senior officials on subjects of public controversy would conclude that the U.S. government operates at the whims of midlevel career personnel. But why pick on Martians. Chris Matthews concludes the same thing: "The steering wheel doesn’t control the car anymore."

The president, however, isn’t even in the car. He is a bystander, a commenter on the passing scene. He moves only when compelled by outside forces. Domestic policy was ceded to Congress during the first half of his term. Only after Scott Brown’s upset in 2010 did Obama take a lead part in passing his health care law. The threat of American default forced him into botched negotiations with John Boehner on the debt ceiling. His tax increases on the wealthy came about only because the entirety of the Bush tax rates were set to expire on Jan. 1, 2013, anyway. On foreign policy he was pulled kicking and screaming into Libya, joining the British and French in overthrowing Qaddafi only when it became clear they were prepared to go to war without him. The Syrian civil war has raged for years, 90,000 have died, as the president does what little he can to convince the Russians to abandon Assad. When natural or man-made disasters strike Americans, he acts, but not before. He is a reactive president, whom only Reinhold Niebuhr could love.

One of his sympathizers describes him, favorably, as "Barack the Buck-Passer." And pass bucks he has, trillions of them in fact, mostly in the direction of the American people and obstructionist Republicans. Still, Obama’s supporters must recognize, one can only buck-pass for so long. There comes a reckoning of accounts. Have we finally reached that moment, in the confluence of the Benghazi and IRS and AP stories, when Obama no longer will be able to blame his predecessor and adversaries for his own failings? I wonder. Obama’s luck may return. The Republicans may screw up. Another event may restore his sense of balance, and reinstate the supremacy of his preferred narrative.

Then again, once established, storylines are hard to break. The White House may have to do more to regain its mojo than have a senior official place a call to Mike Allen. The desperation with which progressive commentators downplay Benghazi, the IRS, and the AP shows how dangerous to liberalism a besieged White House can be. "The scandals are falling apart," says Ezra Klein, who at least implies the stories rise to the level of scandal. Others aren’t as charitable.

Perhaps the liberals’ best bet is for Obama to go "Bulworth," as he has privately wished he could do, and unleash on the world the full, untrammeled power of his obnoxious, know-it-all personality. That at least would change the narrative. Otherwise, I suspect, it is going to be a long, long, long second term.