When president checks out, abuses mount

Tom Schaller says President Obama has encouraged scandals with his detached leadership style

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May has been a rough month for President Barack Obama: more Benghazi developments, plus the breaking IRS and journo-bugging scandals.

Taken separately, none of these episodes is fatal. They do not reach Watergate levels. Given that previously classified Benghazi emails were doctored by Republicans, and that even former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates confirms it would have been impossible and ill-advised to dispatch fighter planes to the consulate, clearly there's more smoke than fire in Benghazi. (My Benghazi rule: Only those who can identify at least five of the eight U.S. embassies and consulates that terrorists attacked during George W. Bush's presidency — two of which were attacked more than once — can carp about it.)

But, taken together, these three political problems reveal an underlying fault in President Obama's leadership style.

The knock against Mr. Obama is that he's personally detached. That's not the problem. The fact that Ronald Reagan was affable doesn't excuse his violation of Rules 1 and 2 of American security policy by negotiating with hostage-takers and selling arms to a radical Islamist country.

No, the problem is that Mr. Obama too often seems politically detached.

Maybe the president's disinclination to engage members of Congress is overstated, and surely the prospect of having one's hand bitten by Capitol Hill Republicans for the umpteenth time is a strong deterrent against negotiating with them. But negotiating is part of the job. As presidential historian Richard Neustadt famously put it, presidential power is the power to persuade. That includes persuading Capitol Hill.

More than a few liberals, including me, hectored Mr. Bush for his infrequent, highly staged press conferences. But in their respective first terms, Mr. Obama held fewer press conferences (79) than Mr. Bush did (89), and fewer than one-third of the short question-and-answer media sessions his predecessor held. Being available to the media and, by extension, the American people, is also part of the job.

Beyond the problem of limited accessibility, political detachment can also lead to insufficient oversight and the failure of presidents and their deputies to properly deploy executive power to protect those who need the power of the presidency to shield them. And here is where the IRS, Benghazi and journalism surveillance episodes intersect with this president's executive demeanor.

Yes, the government must guard against security-threatening leaks. But the probability of using invasive surveillance to silence journalists rises when a president is detached. And although the commentary side of Fox News is chock full of fact-challenged propagandists, by all accounts Fox News reporter James Rosen, whose email was searched and phone records subpoenaed by the administration, is a good and ethical journalist. Those who defended Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson — plus the late columnist Bob Novak, by extension — must also be champions for Mr. Rosen. And that includes the president and this White House.

Mr. Obama may well not have known about decisions made by IRS officials regarding the tax status of conservative-leaning organizations; fine, let's take him at his word. But obliviousness is a byproduct of detachment. Even if the tea party movement is a convenient shill for austerity-minded politicians and corporate interests, those who support the tax-exempt status of liberal nonprofits must support the same treatment for conservative nonprofits. Ditto for the president.

The Benghazi account State Department official Gregory Hicks delivered to Congress may very well have been clouded by his own personal and professional grudges, his incompetence, or just poor memory. But the use of unnamed sources to discredit him is appalling.

We tend to equate the abuse of presidential power with its use — with action, not inaction — such as when presidents use military force without authority or try to obstruct justice to mask personal mistakes or administrative illegalities.

In Mr. Obama's case, however, the abuse of power emanates from non-use. Failing to employ the power of the presidency to protect journalists, whistleblowers, and political opponents constitutes the abuse of power in absentia and is byproduct of this president's political detachment.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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