Swamped in controversies, President Obama and his slow-footed team are essentially telling the American public, "We're not crooked. We're just incompetent."
The IRS targeting conservatives, the Justice Department snooping at The Associated Press, the State Department injecting politics into Benghazi, the military covering up sexual assaults, and the Department of Veterans Affairs leaving heroes in health care limbo "“ each of these so-called scandals share two traits.
First, there is some element of "spin," the cynical art of telling just enough of the truth to avoid political embarrassment. Obfuscation and demagogy, the dirty tools of political quackery that Obama pledged to purge from Washington, enjoy top-shelf status at his White House.
Second, there is almost comical bungling. While denying involvement in high crimes and misdemeanors, the Obama administration appears to be pleading guilty to lesser crimes of bureaucratic incompetence. But that is an unsustainable position for a president who wants Americans to believe again in the power and grace of good government, particularly as it relates to the implementation of Obamacare.
--IRS agents targeted conservatives. Their bosses lied about it for months.
--Justice Department investigators violated internal guidelines to secretly spy on The Associated Press.
--White House and State Department officials minimized their role in shaping initial explanations for the Benghazi attack.
--Military officers assigned to sexual assault prevention units are charged with sexual battery. The Pentagon's own study finds that 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012. It's not a new problem.
--Despite a 40 percent increase in funding, the Department of Veteran's Affairs cannot ease a backlog of cases. The typical wounded warrior waits more than 300 days for action on a claim. In major cities, the wait can be 642 days.
The backdrop to this parade of buffoonery is a decades-long decline in the public's faith in government, a trend continued under Obama. Restoring the public's trust in his governance is the only way Obama can survive the controversies with his agenda and legacy intact.
In interviews, allies of the White House privately suggested a few things Obama could do, including:
Appoint a bipartisan oversight board to oversee the implementation of Obamacare. There is no way around the fact that a vast majority of voters will not trust the IRS to implement the greatest piece of social legislation in decades. Before the tempests, Obamacare was unpopular and largely misunderstood by most Americans. The law's success hinges on the government recruiting young adults into insurance pools. And polls show young adults are the least likely to trust government.
Layer the White House communication team with experienced crisis managers. As I wrote here last week, Obama needs to realize that the dedicated public servants in the West Wing are not getting the job done.
Apologize to the AP and announce a new policy for leaks investigations. The White House needs to punish people who leak classified information that endangers national security. But the scope of the snooping at AP combined with Obama's unprecedented zeal for leaks investigations raises doubts about his commitment to transparency and to an unfettered media. He has pursued more such cases than all previous administration combined, according to the Washington Post. The paper also reported that the administration spied on a Fox News reporter at the State Department. Again, this is a matter of trust.
Appoint a special prosecutor on the IRS. The last thing the country needs is another subpoena-powered fishing expedition like the Whitewater inquiries. But we might need a special prosecutor with a narrowly defined mission to investigate the actions and motives of IRS agents and their superiors. Is there a better way to restore the agency's integrity? The administration investigating itself will not lift the cloud from Obama's White House.
Reset the narrative and public expectations with a major speech on trust. Obama has spoken eloquently and convincingly about this issue. If his next address included painful solutions such as the ones above, he might restore the public's audacity to hope.