It’s hard not to notice that a kind of narrative schizophrenia has taken hold as Republicans seek to turn the various ongoing scandals in Washington to their advantage — and as commentators try to interpret what the political fallout from them will mean.
One current storyline has it that all of these stories could converge to create a sense that Obama’s embrace of government activism has shaded into Nixonian abuses of power — revealing that Obama personally harbors a far more intrusive, overbearing, and even sinister approach to governing than he previously let on. But another current storyline has it that the White House’s pushback on these scandals — the claims of a firewall between the Justice Department and the White House, the assertions of no connection to the IRS abuses — reveal a president who is weak and unable to control the government he presides over.
In the first camp are Republicans who hope to turn the scandals into a larger storyline that undermines the president to their advantage. Karen Tumulty describes their argument as follows:
In the view of President Obama’s adversaries, recent revelations add evidence to arguments that they have been making about the president all along: that he would do or say whatever it took to get reelected; that his is a philosophy of rampant, invasive big government; that he has not acted within the constraints of the Constitution; that he regards those who oppose him with contempt.
Meanwhile, in the second camp, here is Peter Baker, arguing that Obama has become something of a “bystander” in the Oval Office:
On Wednesday, announcing the departure of the acting director of the I.R.S., he portrayed himself as an onlooker to the scandal, albeit one with the power to force changes. “Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I’m angry about it,” he said.
He likewise had nothing to do with the Justice Department seizure of phone records of reporters for The Associated Press, aides say. The Benghazi dispute, he complains, is brazen politics, and the White House released e-mails Wednesday meant to show that the president’s close aides had little involvement in its most hotly debated aspect. He has no way to force Congress to pass even a modest gun-control bill, aides say, while the slaughter in Syria defies American capacity to intervene.
All of which raises the question of how a president with grand ambitions and shrinking horizons can use his office. Mr. Obama may be right about some of the things he cannot do, but he has also struggled lately to present a vision of what he can do.
In this latter camp is Bob Schieffer, who this morning asked this question of the Obama administration: “is anybody home?”
Obviously, these narratives can’t both be true at once. The scandals can’t demonstrate that Obama’s true dictatorial streak has finally been revealed while simultaneously supporting the idea that they’ve shown him to be too weak to control a government that has run amok.
What all of this illustrates, yet again, is that imposing simplistic narratives on complex, disparate situations actually discourages the act of focusing on the actual facts of those situations. What needs to be reckoned with here is the question of whether Obama actually is directly responsible for the Justice Department’s seizure of phone records or for the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups. In the first case, there is a firewall between the White House and the Justice Department; in the second, no evidence has emerged — yet — that the IRS’s decision involved anyone outside the agency. The corollary question is whether Obama exercises control over such decisions.
The actual answers to these questions — based on what we know now — reveal that neither narrative is correct. There is no way these decisions, in and of themselves, can be plausibly or tidily linked to either any sinister power-mad leanings on Obama’s part or to evidence of presidential weakness.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the Justice Department and IRS targeting of conservatives don’t raise deadly serious questions about abuses of governmental power. They absolutely do, and both require a full and complete accounting. Nor does this absolve Obama by any means of responsibility for what’s happening. In the case of the Justice/Associated Press story, Obama could push as hard as possible for a very strong shield law that would prevent such abuses from happening. In the case of the IRS story, we should absolutely judge how aggressively he moves to get to the bottom of it.
Rather, what is really revealed by this schizophrenia is the folly of the Beltway addiction to what Jonathan Chait describes as “narratives that revolve around the president as a protagonist.” Obama is not the only character of any significance in the Beltway drama, though he may be far and away the most powerful. And complex policy disputes and serious governing lapses can’t be reduced to — or ascribed to — nothing more than outgrowths of presidential character. The yearning to impose character-driven narrative simplicity on complex policy and governing questions actually encourages us to turn our focus away from the actual factual details underlying them.