The buck stops here, the fish rots from the head

Bloomberg
Bloomberg

The uncommunicative communications team at the White House seems to think “I had no idea” and “I learned from the newspapers” are answers befitting the president in response to the plethora of scandals. They are not aware, apparently, that the answer is embarrassing, perpetuating the narrative that the president doesn’t govern, he only campaigns. What’s more, it assumes the media and public don’t know how government or any big organization works.

There was no email from Obama to the Internal Revenue Service saying it should go after tea party groups. We probably won’t find the White House ordering the Justice Department to spy on reporters in contravention of established protocols and past practice. But President Obama signaled in every way possible that critics were not merely opponents, but were enemies.

In January, Peter Wehner remarked on an Obama press conference in which he said of his opponents: “They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research.” As Pete noted of this example of political character assassination:

This is a president who, when he’s not sermonizing on the importance of civility in public discourse, is accusing Republicans of being social Darwinists and members of the “flat earth society,” of putting their party ahead of their country, and of wanting dirty air and dirty water. He says Republicans want autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.” He accuses his opponents of not simply being wrong but of being his “enemies.”

During the 2012 election, Obama’s vice president said Republicans want to put African-Americans “back in chains’ while Obama’s top aides and allies implied Governor Romney was a felon and flat-out stated that he was responsible for the cancer-death of a steelworker’s wife. For Obama, it’s not enough for the differences in politics to be based on an genuine difference in philosophy. He is always working to portray his opponents as caricatures, as cartoon-figures who don’t want to feed the poor or fund medical research. One might be excused for thinking that the president has a suspicion of honest debate and prefers demonization instead.

When former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) called tea party members “un-American” and the media with zero evidence claimed they were racist (the only real sin in public life), a message is sent to those who toil in an administration beset by criticism. When the administration attempted to deny Fox News access, that sent a message as well.

The president and his Justice Department have gone after more leaks and prosecuted more individuals for leaks than any other. Unauthorized communication with the media is a capital offense with these people. So is it any wonder the Justice Department, operating in this “get the leaks” and the “media criticism is illegitimate” atmosphere, would take it upon itself to spy on the press in ways no other administration did?

In short, you can’t vilify enemies, run a hyper-partisan, never-ending campaign, consider the press as an illegitimate intrusion and expect underlings won’t take in that ethos. It is a truism that the tone of any organization (old boys club, egalitarian, deferential, super-aggressive, informal, formal, etc.) is set by its leader. And if underlings get carried away and go overboard can the leader then claim no responsibility?

That is the real similarity between the Obama team and the Nixon administration. In the 1970s, a paranoid president’s convinction that his enemies were out to get him and that their opposition was a threat to national security informed the decisions of his underlings. The ends justified the means. Now, a prickly president convinced of his own messianic quality and surrounded by sycophants decries his opponents as operating out of ill will. His underlings get the point.

It is not a coincidence that the few dead-enders in the lefty blogosphere and punditocracy still defending the president embody the same ethos as the president. Republicans are liars, entirely responsible for all that goes wrong, out to wreck the economy and racists, they would have us believe. Obama set the tone, but they amplified it, encouraged it and dutifully took down the White House talking points. Had they not been so passive and eager to enable the White House, some in the administration might have internalized a sense of limits. Instead, they got nothing but encouragement.

The individuals who used the powers of the IRS and the Justice Department in inappropriate ways are directly to blame. But the president and his chorus in the left-wing media played their part as well. For them to now express amazement that anyone in the Obama administration could behave in such fashion is a bit much.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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Jennifer Rubin | May 16, 2013