Since September, the Obama administration has been under fire from a Republican weapon that seems to reload with aggravating perpetuity. Weathering attacks on the specific responses to the tragedy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, President Obama sought to mute a chorus of commentators in the presidential debate at Hofstra University last October. Speaking about the American diplomatic corps, Obama absolved others of ultimate wrongdoing:
"They're my representatives. I send them there -- oftentimes into harm's way... Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I'm the president. And I'm always responsible."
The Obama of national security is accountable, responsible, and when necessary, culpable.
That approach is historically sound. When the Deepwater Horizon turned the Gulf of Mexico black in 2010, BP CEO Tony Hayward couldn't shrug, hold up his palms, and point at the rig's mechanics. (We know this because that's exactly what he tried to do.) In the wake of Benghazi, Obama expressed without reservation that -- even in the minutia of these national security issues -- he had been responsible for prevention and must be liable upon disaster.
But when last week told a tale of two scandals -- both underscored by the Libya barrage that will not cease -- that air of accountability emptied out of the Obama administration. It became evident that Obama's feelings of direct responsibility were isolated to the realm of national security.
What happened in Libya was deplorable because that which could have been prevented wasn't prevented. Where security personnel should have been proactive, they were shoved into a corner and forced to be rushed and reactive. It all happened more than five thousand miles from the White House, but Obama took the fall. He held himself to a higher standard.
But last week's IRS case laid bare an imbalance in Obama's priorities. Though his appointees -- or bureaucrats hired by people who fit that bill -- engaged in something steeped in moral and legal turpitude, their transgressions were minor in the scheme of things; the scandal concerned quotidian domestic financial issues. No death, no carnage -- just taxes. The agency's office is just five blocks from the White House. And what's been the White House response?
Obama is "concerned by every report he sees on this," Jay Carney told reporters last Tuesday, "and that is why he looks forward to finding out what the IG report says." In short: the president will take no responsibility before someone of consequence pins it on him.
Not proactive, reactive. Not accountable, evasive. Obama shrugs, hold up his palms, and points to the rig's mechanics. Suddenly, he's Tony Hayward at the Resolute Desk. An incongruence in governing.
The virtually simultaneous revelation that the Department of Justice seized hundreds of phone records prompted a similarly aloof response from team Obama. AP White House reporter Jim Kuhnhenn asked the first question at the May 14 press conference, immediately following the disclosure. His query can be boiled down to its premise. "In every instance," Kuhnhenn scolded Carney, "either the president or you have placed the burden of responsibility someplace else." A far cry from the buck-stops-here Obama of October fame.
The first chunk of Carney's response amounted to a surface defense of the president's record on First Amendment issues. Then he shifted the scope of his answer to White House jurisdiction over Justice cases. "We are not involved... with any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations," he said, adding that "those matters are handled, appropriately, by the Justice Department independently."
Again: Obama is innocent until proven guilty. His head bobs above the waters of responsibility until he's drowning in them. The question arises: who's in charge during the perennial White House side-step?
Perhaps the answer is the president's surrogates -- the people who run the departments being investigated. But when Attorney General Eric Holder was initially asked about the seizure of AP phone records, he told a media pool at the DOJ that it was "getting into matters that are beyond my knowledge." His recusal from the matter left him uninformed as to "what the circumstances were here... and I frankly don't have knowledge of those facts."
I'm a self-declared political liberal and voted for Barack Obama last November. That seemed a clear indication that I wanted him running the country, fully informed and profoundly engaged. The more than 51 percent of eligible voters that opted for him reflects a similar sentiment. The de facto administration policy can't be precautionary ignorance and retrospective hand-wringing.
The political left mustn't echo the absent-minded rhetorical gunfire of the right; but it should make President Obama the subject of real targeted criticism until his "buck-stops-here" mentality takes the form of a coherent, comprehensive policy that encompasses his administration's involvement in tax and law questions as much as it does issues of national security.
We don't yet know if the IRS and DOJ allegations will grow into convictions, but regardless of circumstance, Obama's policy should be one of continuity in accountability, not of strategic ignorance that leaves him blindsided and irreproachable. "I'm always responsible," he said in October. I voted for that Barack Obama.