What's worse: a president who knows his government has been spying on allies' phone calls and allows it to continue? Or a president who's unaware?
Whatever benefits spying may have and however much other countries may engage in it as well, that the National Security Agency was reportedly collecting the communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as other world leaders, will no doubt damage Obama's trust among the very people with whom he must build some of the world's most critical relationships. Perhaps even more unsettling, though, is the possibility that the president didn't know of the program. That would reveal something much more substantial than a breach of trust—it would raise questions about how Obama manages his administration, how well he gets unfavorable information as well as the good, and the kind of culture he has set at the White House.
As several others have already pointed out, this isn't the first time Obama has used the "I didn't know" excuse. First, there was the IRS scandal. Then just recently, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNN that the president didn't know about the problems with the HealthCare.gov Web site before its rollout. And now, we have administration officials saying the president was uninformed that his peers in allied countries were apparently being spied upon.
If all this is true, there are varying degrees of concern for each case. I'm not all that worried the president wasn't informed about the scrutiny the IRS paid to certain political groups. In this scenario, legal experts have said, it may have been inappropriate for the president to have been briefed. It is deeply concerning, however, that the president was reportedly not informed in advance of the health care site's possible glitches. This was his signature piece of legislation, he'd just spent weeks staking his negotiations on the shutdown and the debt ceiling limit over its launch, and the program's success will be a key factor in how we ultimately judge his legacy. To not be made aware of potentially embarrassing Web site flaws makes it look like the people around the president were afraid to deliver bad news.
On the spying scandal, the concern runs even deeper. If the president was not aware of the program until this summer (though there are some reports saying the White House did know), it raises further unsettling questions. What does this say about his interactions with intelligence officials? When given daily briefings, does he prod them and engage with them enough to make sure he is not left in the dark?
Most of all, what does the president's reported lack of knowledge about the program say about the staffers and advisers he chose? Is there enough willingness to share bad news? Is there a culture that encourages debate? Are there ample outsiders in place, who don't have the loyalties that might prevent them from delivering uncomfortable truths? If people were trying to protect the president, didn't they know that doing so could put him in an embarrassing situation that undermined not only his relationships with other heads of state, but his credibility as a leader who knows what's going on in his own government?
Whatever the answers, there will be plenty of finger pointing about who's to blame. But as president, Obama will need to take his share. It's his job to put people in place around him who are unafraid to deliver the bad news and question existing government programs. It's his job to walk the fine line between micromanaging and hands-off leadership, so he can focus on his own priorities yet avoid being blindsided. And it's his job to create a culture that encourages dissent, welcomes debate and rewards those who take risks rather than keep quiet.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.