Whatever else happens as a result of the multiple controversies that have engulfed the administration, one thing is clear: President Obama has failed to meet one of the most important goals he set out when he was first elected, which was to demonstrate that activist government could also be smart government.
Six weeks after winning the presidency in 2008, Obama reflected on the meaning of the election. He was reluctant to claim, as some others were, that his victory marked the beginning of an era in which Americans would embrace bigger government. Suspicion of command-and-control, top-down government, he said, was “a lasting legacy” of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
So rather than portraying his first election as the end of a long period of conservative ascendancy, Obama called it “a correction to the correction.” As he put it then: “I think what you saw in this election was people saying: ‘Yes, we don’t want some big, bureaucratic, ever-expanding state. On the other hand, we don’t want a state that’s dysfunctional, that doesn’t believe in its mission, that can’t carry out some of the basic functions of government and provide service to people and be there when they’re hurting.’ ”
He then described what that meant for the government he was beginning to assemble. “What we don’t know yet is whether my administration and this next generation of leadership is going to be able to hew to a new, more pragmatic approach that is less interested in whether we have big government or small government [but is] more interested in whether we have a smart, effective government.”
What has happened since Obama laid down that challenge for his administration? More Americans favor smaller government over bigger government than when he was first elected, according to exit polls from last November. Public confidence in the federal government is as low as it has ever been, according to a Pew Research Center survey released this spring.
This weekend, four of the government’s most important agencies are beset by political controversy, management breakdowns or both: State (what happened in Benghazi, Libya), Treasury (targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service), Justice (leak-related investigation of the Association Press) and Defense (rising numbers of sexual assaults).
Add to that the questions about Health and Human Services and its implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and it is little wonder confidence has eroded.
There are many reasons for the public’s diminished confidence in the federal government, reflecting general disapproval with the way Washington has worked during the Obama years. The president’s advisers blame Republicans for much of the gridlock and partisan infighting, and they are quick to note that Obama’s approval ratings are far higher than those of the Republicans.
Republicans do bear a considerable share of the responsibility for overall attitudes about Washington and government. Their dismal ratings are a measure of public dissatisfaction with the party generally and with House Republican efforts to thwart the president.
But Obama bears a particular responsibility for failing to do what he said he had to do, which was to convince the public that he could make the part of government that he directly controls — the executive branch — smarter, more effective and more deserving of trust.
Early in his presidency, Obama convened a meeting with a group of historians. The topic he put on the table was: What does it take to be a transformational president? Obama’s ambition to be such a figure could be seen in his first-term agenda, which included a major economic stimulus package, a bailout of the auto industry, a major financial regulatory reform package and, biggest of all, the law that is transforming the nation’s health-care industry.
But public skepticism about government put an extra burden on Obama, as it has on all activist Democratic politicians over the past three decades. To do what he wanted to do through government required building greater confidence in government. Long before the current controversies materialized, he had not been able to do that.
Defenders of his stimulus package say it prevented another depression and helped initiate a turnaround in the economy. But as the recovery sputtered and calls grew for additional stimulus, Obama did not have the political support to launch another round of government intervention because of criticisms that he had already added enormously to the deficit.
Most controversial has been his health-care initiative. Throughout the long battle to enact and then begin to implement the law, Obama’s White House has been unable to win broad public support for it, even though individual pieces are popular. Obama is still fighting to overcome distrust of government as he proceeds with the most complex change in social welfare policy since the 1960s.
Now the president is dealing with unexpected problems, each of which threatens to make the trust-in-government deficit even bigger.
The most corrosive of the controversies is what happened at the IRS, which singled out tea party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny in their applications for tax-exempt status. That Obama knew nothing about it does little to quell concerns that one of the most-feared units in government was operating out of control.
The multiple failures at the IRS speak of an agency that, at worst, was politically motivated in going after opponents of the president’s agenda and that, at best, showed terrible judgment, lacked vigorous oversight by its managers and misled members of Congress about what was happening.
There is much about the Justice Department’s leak investigation that isn’t known and may not be known, given that it involves national security issues and classified information. But on its face, the collection of telephone records from the Associated Press appears to be so broad that it cannot easily be explained. Because the president, rightly, cannot interfere, he is left mostly helpless in the face of this controversy.
The argument over what happened in Benghazi last Sept. 11 is mired in politics and probably will continue to be. Obama sees the investigation led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as a politically inspired sideshow. Republicans see the administration’s response as a political coverup designed to protect the president and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Putting aside the controversy over what happened to the administration’s original talking points as they evolved amid bureaucratic wrangling, what actually happened in Benghazi was a breakdown in security that reflected badly on the administration. Wherever the congressional investigation leads, the findings of the State Department’s internal investigation, which cited “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies,” stand as harsh criticism of what happened on Obama’s and Clinton’s watch.
The full political impact of what is unfolding now may not be clear until closer to the 2014 elections. Obama has been damaged, but how much? Republicans are on the offensive but risk overplaying their hand out of deep dislike for this president. But no matter how the electoral politics turn out, Obama’s goal of creating confidence in bigger government has taken a big hit.
For previous columns by Dan Balz,
go to postpolitics.com.