May 16, 2013

President Barack Obama listens to a question in the rain in the White House Rose Garden in Washington, May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Unprecedented Justice Department searches of journalists’ phone records. IRS targeting of conservative political groups. Spiraling sexual assault rates in the military. And the downplaying of the first killing of an American ambassador in 30 years.

In a matter of days, alarming accounts have emerged regarding the actions of five key federal government bureaucracies: the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon.

For commentators on the right, the reports are final proof of the raft of conspiracy theories focused on President Barack Obama. For commentators on left, they are non-scandals that Republicans exaggerate for political gain. Our endless left-right debate – Obama the devil, Obama the angel – misses more serious problems.

For liberals, the reports are a worrying sign of Obama’s struggles to carry out his second-term agenda. For conservatives, they show that even if a Republican wins the White House, Washington is increasing unmanageable.

First, Obama’s woes. Some of his wounds are self-inflicted. For five years the Obama administration has displayed a destructive tendency to try to have it both ways. In a press conference Thursday, the president did so again.

In lawyerly responses, Obama said he supported journalists’ constitutional right to report but stood by the fact that his administration has carried out more criminal leak investigations than all previous administrations combined. He called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but prevaricated on how the United States would respond to apparent Syrian government chemical weapons attacks.

Obama came into office promising openness – but from counter-terrorism to domestic policy, his White House has been secretive, insular and controlling. Yes, Republicans are bent on destroying Obama’s presidency, but an aloof president has alienated his Democratic allies.

Congress is no better. Each two-year term seems to set new standards for political trench warfare. One-third of the committees in the Republican-controlled House are investigating the administration. Some on the far right call for Obama’s impeachment.

During President George W. Bush’s second term, a similar pattern emerged. Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) carried out exhaustive hearings on the administration’s misdeeds in Iraq. And some talked of impeaching Bush. The current Republican effort is broader than the Democratic one. But the goal is the same: Smear one’s opponent first, legislate second.

Smear is the operative word as well in an increasingly partisan news media. Commentators on Fox and MSNBC earn millions oversimplifying complex problems, denigrating their political opponents and pandering to the far right and far left. Fox has been consistently worse.

After months of peddaling Benghazi conspiracy theories, Fox’s Sean Hannity was triumphant this week. declared this week that the IRS was targeting “those that desire to make America a better place to live.” [My apologies. The IRS did, in fact, target groups that sought to educate Americans on “how to make America a better place to live.”] But Roger Ailes and company may look likely to again overplay their hand and, unintentionally, help Obama.

The IRS actions – from targeting conservative tax-exempt organization to lying to members of Congress – were outrageous. But so far, no evidence has emerged that the White House knew of the effort. And responsibility for the soaring number of sexual assaults in the military lies primarily with Pentagon, not the White House.

But both scandals show a larger problem: Legislative deadlock makes governance more difficult. Ambiguous regulations have complicated the IRS’s job of screening political groups. And there is limited agreement in Congress on how to reform the military’s antiquated system for prosecuting sexual assault.

Regarding Benghazi, there are some criticisms that can and should be made of the administration. Locked in a fiercely contested re-election campaign, Obama downplayed the role of al Qaeda in the attack in his initial public statements.

But Republicans exaggerate the impact of the careful terminology Obama used. At most, the effort succeeded for several weeks. By Election Day, the fact that al Qaeda-linked terrorists had killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans was well known.

Far-right claims that Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally blocked aid to Benghazi before or during the attack are baseless and absurd. Neither would want an American ambassador killed in the middle of a presidential campaign.

Instead, blame for Benghazi lies across the government.

House Republicans’ rejection of $450 million in State Department requests for additional security funding since 2010 intensified the department’s dependence on private contractors to guard its facilities. When the Libyan government banned such firms, the department’s understaffed Diplomatic Security Service had only a handful of personnel to deploy in Libya. Charlene Lamb and three other State Department officials were relieved of their duties after rejecting repeated requests for additional security from American officials in Libya.

Privately, career diplomats have also questioned Stevens’ decision-making. They expressed surprise at his choice to spend the nights of September 10 and 11 in Benghazi, which had already experienced a series of anti-Western attacks. Brief, unpredictable day visits make it more difficult for attackers to plan assaults, they said.

And as Jake Tapper correctly pointed out in a May 15 piece for CNN, the Benghazi facility was, in fact, primarily a CIA outpost. Of the roughly 30 people evacuated from the site, 20 were CIA employees. State Department officials had an informal arrangement with the CIA to provide security if needed. When the attack unfolded, both the CIA and military were unprepared.

The 100 pages of emails released by the White House on Wednesday raise more questions for Clinton than for Obama. The State Department – not the White House – mounted an intensive effort to eliminate references to al Qaeda from much-disputed talking points. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, for example, should disclose who she was referring to when she cited the concerns of her “building leadership.”

In the weeks ahead, perceptions of Obama will likely harden. The right will see him as dastardly. The left will view him as a victim of Washington’s gutter politics. Most probably, his biggest sin is being aloof and disengaged.

But Obama’s failings are only part of the problem. An increasingly polarized Washington is devouring its own. Ceaseless, take-no-prisoners political warfare, not nefarious White House plots, ravages government.


PHOTO (Insert): House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) is holding hearings Friday to examine the IRS actions involving tax-exempt organization, Washington, February 15, 2012. REUTERS/ Gary Cameron

PHOTO (Insert B): Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pauses while testifying on the September attacks on U.S. diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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Mr. D. Rohde,

Thank you for pointing out the issues we all know. I think what Americans need is solutions, is there any proposals?

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive

You voted for this

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

Let’s ignore, for once, party loyalties and try to understand matters “in play” at present without bias.

I. With regard to the tragedy of Bengazi, each and every American needs to know all available details as to Hillary Clinton’s actions and inactions as it unfolded as Washington and the rest of America watched in shocked and impotent silence.

A. Is there a person responsible for “risk evaluation and management” in real time 24/7 over our Diplomats and those responsible for their safety at the State Department or the CIA? If so, who is it? If not, why not?

B. With all the aircraft carrier groups and U.S. bases across the planet that the U.S. taxpayer supports with tax dollars, precisely why would ANYPLACE on the planet be more than an hour or two distant from one or more fighter aircraft on “alert” and ready to go? Surely existing hardware, personnel, routine training and proficiency requirements could and should be revised to provide such capability within existing funding without in any manner reducing present “readiness”?

C. Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, merely stated the obvious when she purported to “accept full responsibility”. “We, the people” are now supposed to accept her posturing before Congress, essentially saying “Oops, well let’s fix what we have to and not worry about who did or did not do what, we’re not going to bring the dead back to life.”

Well, you can’t “fix” what’s “broke” until you KNOW “what’s broke” and why. If the Benghazi “facility” was primarily a CIA “outpost”, was that from the beginning or a transition? Who had “controlling responsibility” for what was done there and the safety of those doing it?

If this were John Kerry on the stand, I wouldn’t worry so much because he’s winding down his political career. But Hillary Clinton is going to be the front runner for the Democratic nomination for the office of President of these United States. We ALL need to decided whether or not we believe in her abilities to lead and to timely make those life and death decisions that ultimately fall to every president to make.

II. With regard to “our” government’s monitoring telephone lines of the Associated Press: Which is the higher priority of our government…identifying a “whistle blower” or maintaining the integrity of information sources absolutely vital to understanding and reporting “news”? We do not have Eric Holder “up front and center” accepting “full responsibility”, but instead essentially admitting that he knew this was going to be a “hot potato” and so he would recuse himself from involvement.

III. The IRS is independent, pervasive and has powers necessitating tight control and constant review such that it’s functions are impartial and it’s powers not misused. They have been. All responsible, directly or indirectly are “career bureaucrats” whose timely termination is the single credible means of demonstrating meaningful accountability for transgressions now a matter of record.

Eric Holder, head of the Justice Department, is saying “I wasn’t involved…I didn’t know. President Obama is saying that he has performed his duties well and shall continue to do so. Each is clearly trying to drag this turd out of the public spotlight by the clean end. The problem is that there is no clean end.

It was Holder’s JOB to know and his job to be involved. This man can not be seen as accountable to ANYONE unless and until he is forced from office for dereliction of duty. If the President will not do that, then HE is derelect in HIS duty.

IV. The continuing problem of Sexual Abuse of female members of our Armed Forces is a serious and pervasive one. The very people charged with enforcing rules, regulations and laws making such a criminal act now stand accused of this very behavior.

The single possible conclusion of an unbiased observer is that our present military culture is complicit in such behavior and actively thwarts prosecution and meaningful reform. The only possible remedy is independent investigation, prosecution and subsequent oversight of corrective measures if ALL “rotten apples” are to be removed.

We can’t expect every American president to accept Harry Truman’s declaration that “the buck stops here”. We can’t impeach a President for just being clueless or incompetent or acting (or not acting) indecisively. But we can and should accept only credible reasons for significant and obvious failures of the man at the top”.

Flimsy and incredible excuses merely serve to disgrace one and all. If that’s the best President Obama can do he deserved to impotently twist in the wind for the reinder of his term.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The political in-fighting that is bein witnessed now is nothing new. I can remember the Goldwater campaign preaching for a reduction in the in-fighting going on in Washington. That was 50 years ago.

As long as the American public continues to elect the breed of people that they choose to elect now, this sort of nursery school mentality and behavior will continue. There needs to be a significant shift in the memtality of the political class in America. For starters, let us begin with the idea that my position on whatever may not be shared by others but that does not mean that some sort of accomodation can not be made that will please everyone. Lies do not work. Nixon, Johnson, and Clinton found that our the hard way. What I find absolutely amazing is that all these supposedly intelligent political types never seem to learn that.

For the sheer joy of it, let us get all the legislative types to sit down, shut up, and listen to what they have said in the past. That should be so shocking as to the content of what has been said, many of them might have a syncopal episode out of sheer embarassment. Should these characters bother to listen to those that they supposedly represent and not listen to themselves from their perceived perches on Olympus, the will of the people might be recognized and acted upon. That might just be a first occurrance for America.

Posted by visailian | Report as abusive

“Ceaseless, take-no-prisoners political warfare, not nefarious White House plots, ravages government.”

But, would one have reason to believe (or at the minimum, endorsed) this from the White House? Starting with the incessant “blame Bush” (for four years) or ending with “we need to punish our enemies”.

While the President still behaves as a novice, more inclined to campaign than to lead, the rhetoric is sustained from the top. He owns the podium and for the past four+ years has not changed the dialogue.

One typically reaps what they sow, and this President is ill-prepared to deal with it.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

@Kailim: You want solutions from a Reuters columnist? You want him to provide the facts AND think for you?

I think Mr. Rohde would do just fine to report the facts…as any reporter would and should do. From that I can do my own thinking…as any citizen would and should do.

Posted by Mercurus | Report as abusive

In fact all rules, laws and regulations, protocols and political systems are outdated. Because we make all these things after we encounter problems.

I think all the governance problems of Washington is due to some part of the political system including the Constitution are outdated and not cater for or suitable for today. I still remember Obama had yelled for ‘Change’5 years ago in his first presidential campaign. You really need some change, Americans.

Posted by Kailim | Report as abusive


And precisely why should we Americans care what YOU think? Our system seems to work better than any existing alternate thus far. I seriously doubt enlightenment will be found in twelfth century thinking and values.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The author is right. The political parties in this country are devouring themselves, and Americans are suffering the result.

@Crash – no, the Democrats did not vote for government lockdown and obstruction – Republicans did.

I don’t expect any President to be 100% forthcoming with the people and with lots of good reasons, nor do I expect every President to do everything right. I think what goes on behind closed doors in the White House of any administration would make our hair stand on end, and when I do everything right for four or eight years is when I’ll expect that from any President. But refusing to cooperate in the interest of governing, and the GOP focusing every single day and decision on impeaching the President is squarely on the shoulders of the Republicans.

So @Crash, YOU voted for this.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Why is the death of an ambassador that much more significant than the death of any other American overseas by criminal elements?

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive