A Newcomer's Guide to the 3 Obama Scandals

Three dissimilar episodes, one of which is very bad.
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I have been in China, offline, and in other ways removed from the US news ecosystem through the blossoming period of the three simultaneous problems for the Obama administration. Here is how they look after a day's worth of catching up:


1) Benghazi. As a scandal, this is BS. Of course it was a terrible tragedy. But the efforts to make it into cover-up, deception, or flat-out lying by the White House (based on the difference between "act of terror" and "terrorism") are a kind of birtherism. See here, or here, or here, or here, and after the jump.

2) IRS and Tea Party. This appears to be bad judgment and bad policy. As everyone including Obama seems to have declared as soon as it came up. If there's evidence that Obama or anyone close to him was aware of it, that would be grounds for a "scandal" tone. So far I have not seen indications to that effect. If you'd like some context, see this; and for the closest thing to a defense of IRS policy, from an admitted anti-Tea Party perspective, see this; and for IRS sympathy, this.

3) AP Wiretaps Seizure of Phone Records and Leak Investigation. Now, this is bad, and I say that not simply because the targets are people in my line of work. This is a decision Obama himself appears to have supported -- rather than criticized, as with the IRS -- in a way that reflects badly on him.

What I had thought about Obama, for all his travails, is that he always took the long view historically, and with an awareness of the many informal and delicate balances that hold things together in a society as raucous and disparate as ours. If you think Obama is a socialist, you're already disagreeing -- but remember, this socialist is the first person since Dwight Eisenhower to win more than 51% 50% of the nationwide vote twice. [Ronald Reagan got 50.8% in 1980, and 58.8% in 1984.]

Obama's endorsement of the wiretaps seizure of phone records and investigation suggests surprising blindness to two great and not-very-hidden realities of presidential history. [Sorry, these were not wiretaps.]

One is, secrets always get out. Presidents always hate it, and they always do their best to prevent it. Usually they manage to guard the truly life-and-death, real-time operational details -- for instance, in Obama's case, the suspected whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. But always there are leaks. Always. Always. And they are nearly always less consequential than is alleged at the time.

The other great historical constant is that after-the-fact hunts for leakers always go wrong. That is because they criminalize the delicate but essential relationship between reporters and government officials. The prosecutors always come across as over-reaching and too intrusive. The reporters and their news organizations always end up in a no-win situation: sometimes spending time in jail, often put in financial distress by legal costs, always torn between their professional/personal obligation to maintain confidence with their sources and the demands of prosecutors. And no good purpose is ever served.

Obama should know this. He must know it. He must know that no president looks better in history's eyes for anti-leak prosecutions, and that many look worse. He must know the temptations that work on any president: the temptation to steadily arrogate executive power, to become so resentful of the limits on his power in domestic-legislation fights that he is drawn toward his untrammeled international authority, to slide imperceptibly from his (unavoidable) role as the person who must make countless hard decisions to a sense that his judgment automatically equals what is best for the country. He must know what the open-ended "war on terror" has done to the balance of powers, the fabric of life, and the rule of law in our country. Obama's (and America's) ideal, Abraham Lincoln, infringed heavily on civil liberties in the name of wartime emergency. That war, like Franklin Roosevelt's, had a definable end.

I think Barack Obama has made a bad mistake in endorsing this investigation. It is one of the rare times I question not his effectiveness or tactics but his judgment. I hope he reconsiders.

______
Further on Benghazi, a friend who is a prize-winning reporter sends this note:

A point I haven't seen made, but of course which may have been made many times, is that in both Benghazi and Sandy Hook there was a tremendous amount of early information that may have been wrong. This happens when there is an attack. But the reactions to this information have been very different.
 
In the case of Benghazi, the early release of information that wasn't entirely correct has been cast by Republicans as a conspiracy on the part of Obama Officialdom.
 
In the case of Sandy Hook, the first 24 hours (or more) saw all kinds of misinformation released about who let the gunman into the school, whether his mother worked at the school, and so forth. For the first day or so, the reports were confused and wrong. The officials releasing this information, officially and unofficially, had no motive to mislead, and there has been no charge of conspiracy.
 
I frankly have kind of tuned out recent coverage of Benghazi because it really does seem to be a "sideshow," to use Obama's term. But in the early days, at least, there were a lot of Republicans who couldn't seem to believe that in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2012 attack, the Administration could have gotten something wrong without it being evidence of evil.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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