William Howell, a University of Chicago political scientist, cites the episode as a low point for Obama in a new book titled, “Thinking About the Presidency: The Primacy of Power.”
“He may have been right on his concerns about constitutionality, but it was costly,” Howell said. “There was a sense of executive impotence in a heightened moment of crisis.”
Robert Dallek, a presidential historian whom Obama has hosted for dinner in the White House several times, contrasted Obama — “not a compulsive-detail guy,” Dallek said — with earlier presidents, such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, who were known to micromanage the bureaucracy.
“Presidents appoint people to high office, and what goes with it is a vote of confidence that they are going to perform sensibly and legally,” Dallek said. “But Johnson being Johnson knew the ways of Washington and [knew] there were always some bad apples there, so he sent out directives.”
Too well insulated?
The scandals of the Nixon administration that followed resulted in the IRS becoming an independent enforcement agency — a fact White House aides cite as a justification for Obama’s not knowing what was going on there until the release of an independent watchdog report. And in the post-Watergate era, presidents and their political aides have steered clear of the agency’s day-to-day operations.
Obama, his allies said, has adhered to that norm more rigorously than some of his predecessors. Moreover, advisers say, Obama does not interfere with Justice Department investigations, such as the leak probe that led to the surveillance of AP reporters.
Aides say it was an unfortunate coincidence that two controversies erupted simultaneously in areas that do not necessarily fall under Obama’s direct power. Yet that reality also may have effectively shielded Obama from learning about red flags that arise beyond the bubble of the Oval Office.
“It’s one thing for the president to make sure he doesn’t say or do anything that might undermine the independence of agencies like the Justice Department or the IRS,” Tribe said. “It’s quite another for the president to insulate himself to a degree that creates the false public impression of disinterest or indifference.”
Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
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