The most basic criticism of Obama turns out to be the truest. A one-term Senator doesn’t have much preparation for governing anything—yes, a risk that Republicans will have to keep in mind with Marco Rubio and Rand Paul—and government under Obama often seems to be run by functionaries. It’s all too plausible that Obama didn’t know, or care to know, about the IRS applying discriminatory standards against right-leaning 501(c)(4) groups, and his attitude toward Eric Holder’s Justice Department grabbing Associated Press phone records appears similarly blasé.
This is rather unlike the disgraced president to whom many Republicans want to compare the incumbent. As Dana Milbank puts it: “Nixon was a control freak. Obama seems to be the opposite: He wants no control over the actions of his administration. As the president distances himself from the actions of ‘independent’ figures within his administration, he’s creating a power vacuum in which lower officials behave as though anything goes.” That’s not exculpatory: a president is responsible for the abuses of his administration whether he orders them directly or simply creates the conditions in which they can happen.
It’s doubtful, alas, that congressional Republicans will treat these matters as anything other than opportunities for Benghazi-style partisan hype. There are fundamental matters behind each of these scandals that the GOP establishment does not want to face any more than Obama does. Namely: exactly what the CIA was doing in Benghazi (and why the U.S. had to be so deeply involved in Libya in the first place), the tremendous discretion the IRS enjoys over whom it targets and how, and the extent to which the War on Terror is really a War on Transparency in government. Failure to strike these problems at their roots only reinforces the idea that the GOP’s leadership cares not a whit for the substance of the issues but only about embarrassing Obama. That may be enough to rally the base ahead of 2014, but there are many other Americans—not nearly enough, to be sure—who actually would like someone to stand up for consistent standards, not only for the IRS but to check and limit arbitrary executive power across the board.