How Obama Has Contributed to His Own Aura of Scandal

In his handling of multiple national security-related uproars, the president's biggest sin is being aloof and disengaged.
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Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Unprecedented Justice Department searches of journalists' phone records. IRS targeting of conservative political groups. Spiraling sexual assault rates in the military. And the downplaying of the first killing of an American ambassador in 30 years.

In a matter of days, alarming accounts have emerged regarding the actions of five key federal government bureaucracies: the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon.

For commentators on the right, the reports are final proof of the raft of conspiracy theories focused on President Barack Obama. For commentators on left, they are non-scandals that Republicans exaggerate for political gain. Our endless left-right debate - Obama the devil, Obama the angel - misses more serious problems.

For liberals, the reports are a worrying sign of Obama's struggles to carry out his second-term agenda. For conservatives, they show that even if a Republican wins the White House, Washington is increasing unmanageable .

First, Obama's woes. Some of his wounds are self-inflicted. For five years the Obama administration has displayed a destructive tendency to try to have it both ways. In a press conference Thursday, the president did so again.

In lawyerly responses, Obama said he supported journalists' constitutional right to report but stood by the fact that his administration has carried out more criminal leak investigations than all previous administrations combined . He called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but prevaricated on how the United States would respond to apparent Syrian government chemical weapons attacks.

Obama came into office promising openness - but from counter-terrorism to domestic policy, his White House has been secretive, insular and controlling. Yes, Republicans are bent on destroying Obama's presidency, but an aloof president has alienated his Democratic allies.

Congress is no better. Each two-year term seems to set new standards for political trench warfare. One-third of the committees in the Republican-controlled House are investigating the administration. Some on the far right call for Obama's impeachment.

During President George W. Bush's second term, a similar pattern emerged. Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) carried out exhaustive hearings on the administration's misdeeds in Iraq. And some talked of impeaching Bush. The current Republican effort is broader than the Democratic one. But the goal is the same: Smear one's opponent first, legislate second.

Smear is the operative word as well in an increasingly partisan news media. Commentators on Fox and MSNBC earn millions oversimplifying complex problems, denigrating their political opponents and pandering to the far right and far left. Fox has been consistently worse.

After months of peddling Benghazi conspiracy theories, Fox's Sean Hannity was triumphant this week. But Roger Ailes and company may overplay their hand and, unintentionally, help Obama.*

The IRS actions - from targeting conservative tax-exempt organization to lying to members of Congress - were outrageous. But so far, no evidence has emerged that the White House knew of the effort. And responsibility for the soaring number of sexual assaults in the military lies primarily with Pentagon, not the White House.

But both scandals show a larger problem: Legislative deadlock makes governance more difficult. Ambiguous regulations have complicated the IRS's job of screening political groups. And there is limited agreement in Congress on how to reform the military's antiquated system for prosecuting sexual assault.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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