IRS scandal creates White House dilemma about what information to share with Obama


(Jonathan Ernst)

"In a dramatic departure from existing White House procedures, President Obama requested today that his staff start cc’ing him on stuff." - Andy Borowitz in the New Yorker

The decision by White House officials not to tell the president what they knew about a burgeoning scandal at the IRS may be offering some humorists a golden opportunity for satire. (“Maybe put a Post-It note on your computer saying, ‘CC POTUS,’ so you don’t forget," Borowitz imagined the president telling his staff.) But the decision of whether or not to warn the president about a developing problem is also a serious leadership question that speaks volumes about the culture of the White House.

The arguments for and against the president knowing about the upcoming inspector general's report go something like this. Protecting the president from the information was a sensible legal call, Washington lawyers told the Post's Philip Rucker and Juliet Eilperin, one that would prevent any chance of it looking like the president was trying to influence an ongoing investigation. White House advisers have said it's protocol not to inform the president in such situations. And former adviser David Axelrod told MSNBC that, given the size of the federal government, it's impossible for the president to be informed of every issue that bubbles up beneath him.

On the other hand, not telling the president risks sending the unintentional message that the president shouldn't be bothered with information until everything on a matter is known. It raises questions about how communication flows within the office. The best leaders know more—much more—than they really need to know about the organizations they run and the people they manage. They actively seek the worst news through both official and unofficial sources and create a culture where all news, good and bad, makes its way quickly to the top.

Perhaps the biggest argument for sharing the news with the president is that not telling him simply risks making him look out of the loop. However great the concept of a transparent government may sound, many people find little comfort in the idea of the president not knowing something until the media reports it.

Each argument for keeping the president in the dark raises even bigger questions. If it's inappropriate for the president to know about an ongoing investigation so as not to meddle in it, why is it appropriate for his staff to know? Couldn't they meddle in the investigation, too? (Dan Balz puts it this way: "if his top advisers knew [and] weren’t inclined to act inappropriately, why would the president?") The argument that it's protocol not to tell the president until a report is complete risks making the White House staff look steeped in bureaucratic processes rather than nimble enough to pass judgment on a case-by-case basis.

And even if there is some truth to the idea that the size of the government makes it impossible for the president to know everything, that argument plays right into White House critics' hands. The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page, for instance, in an op-ed titled "The Unaccountable Executive," interpreted Axelrod's comment to mean "the bigger the federal government grows, the less the President is responsible for it."

There may be legal reasons I don't understand for shielding the president in this case. But from a leadership perspective, the arguments for sharing the news with the president would seem to outweigh the ones for keeping him in the dark.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

The trio of scandals engulfing the White House

Lois Lerner invokes Fifth Amendment in House hearing on IRS targeting

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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