With the constantly-growing list of White House scandals we have been seeing parade across the news over the past few weeks, it’s no surprise that some in the media who have been less than willing to entertain conservative arguments about government corruption and overreach under President Barack Obama’s leadership are finally starting to see the proverbial light. Many have begun noticing the disturbing trend of government agencies using their power to intimidate or pressure political groups. MSNBC, of all networks, has had pundits actually agreeing that the recent controversies may in fact be tyranny, and Joe Scarborough even admitted that the scandals lend credibility to conservative concerns about the Second Amendment.
There have been two theories about the situation in the Obama administration that led to this situation. The first is that Obama is engaging in massive government overreach, bending or breaking the boundaries of government authority in order to realize his political agenda. The second is that President Obama is being hands-off and passive, favoring more grand problem-solving to daily management, and by not handling his administration’s affairs directly has let his underlings run wild.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how those two theories are, on the surface, contradictions. How can someone engaging in massive government overreach and tyrannical authority be simultaneously passive and unengaged? Though this may be true if we solely look to the present, this contradiction makes much more sense if you consider the President’s long game.
In January 2012, Andrew Sullivan penned a column for Newsweek in which he argued that Obama’s long game will outsmart everyone. At the time, many people on the right ignored the story as an Obama fluff piece (indeed, Sullivan has at times seemed to take on a part-time second job as an Obama apologist). However, upon re-reading the story this past week, a section popped out at me that put our current controversies in perspective:
What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don’t-tell, long-game form of domestic politics. What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for.
This is where the left is truly deluded. By misunderstanding Obama’s strategy and temperament and persistence, by grandstanding on one issue after another, by projecting unrealistic fantasies onto a candidate who never pledged a liberal revolution, they have failed to notice that from the very beginning, Obama was playing a long game. He did this with his own party over health-care reform. He has done it with the Republicans over the debt. He has done it with the Israeli government over stopping the settlements on the West Bank—and with the Iranian regime, by not playing into their hands during the Green Revolution, even as they gunned innocents down in the streets. Nothing in his first term—including the complicated multiyear rollout of universal health care—can be understood if you do not realize that Obama was always planning for eight years, not four. And if he is reelected, he will have won a battle more important than 2008: for it will be a mandate for an eight-year shift away from the excesses of inequality, overreach abroad, and reckless deficit spending of the last three decades. It will recapitalize him to entrench what he has done already and make it irreversible.
There are two basic kinds of power that any leader can wield. The first and most straightforward one is hard power, the actual direct action someone takes through their abilities, leadership authority, or the apparatuses at their disposal. The second is soft power, the use of charisma, personality, and influence to achieve indirect action through others.
Obama relies VERY heavily on soft power. The cult of personality that he generated in the 2008 election cycle was essential to both of his election victories, as well as his ongoing efforts in the White House and his relative immunity in the press. He also, however, has begun to wield soft power within the confines of his own administration, and this exercise of soft power is critical.
Take, for example, the IRS’s scrutiny of conservative groups. It’s no secret that the IRS is a political office under the umbrella of the Department of the Treasury, and is thus officially nonpartisan. However, as Tim Carney pointed out recently, it is clear that the civil servants within the IRS are in fact politically more liberal. Tim Carney’s reporting suggests that the Cincinatti IRS office – where the illegal extra scrutiny seems to be largely centralized – was potentially up to 75% liberal in its staff makeup.
Here’s the result: an organization with members who have certain political leanings sees a sudden influx of groups who likely hold opposing views. During an election season, in which their personally highly-favored leader is already coming under attack from other groups who hold the same ideology, the members are already going to be antagonistic towards those new applications. It doesn’t take much at that point to focus those feelings into action, and end up with the scenario that has now been uncovered. Obama’s soft power was all that was needed as a catalyst: these workers probably thought they were doing a good thing by scrutinizing these conservative groups, and only now is the issue even coming to light as a problem.
But – and this is incredibly important – Obama didn’t have to tell anyone specifically to do it. With politically-sympathetic IRS employees and a few loyal political appointees at the helm, the players were positioned well in advance for such a thing to occur naturally. The same goes for the DOJ’s gathering of AP phone records, and the discovery of how the Benghazi talking points were doctored. President Obama doesn’t have to tell his staff to intimidate the press over an unauthorized story, or tell State Department officials to manipulate the Benghazi talking points for political purposes, because they’re all on the same page politically and would likely be willing to do it to support the President’s broader agenda anyway.
Even when that system of soft power backfires, the President can still benefit. Obama, at that point, can stride in to visibly “fix” the problems and in doing so gain political bonus points by using his hard power, like he sought to do by demanding the resignation of the IRS Commissioner (who was set to retire anyway, but oh well). He can also use the political cover to push other issues in the background, like immigration reform.
Sullivan’s 2012 piece in Newsweek was much more prophetic than a lot of conservatives gave him credit for at the time. Obama truly did set out to “fundamentally transform” American institutions when he took office in 2008, but he never planned on doing it all by himself. By depending on the loyalty and favor of workers under his employ, Obama can afford to tackle the “big” issues and be hands-off, while simultaneously still being able to accomplish a great deal of behind-the-scenes work and expand the scope of government via soft power.
Unless we find out more that can actually implicate him directly, President Obama is not going to lose much from these White House scandals except for maybe the blind support of the media. But what conservatives need to pay attention to is that this soft power system is not going away any time soon. President Obama will continue to benefit from the cult of personality that he has garnered for himself within the government, and will likely continue allowing his officials and their agencies to operate independently. These kinds of things are going to keep happening, and they are going to benefit President Obama far more than they hurt him.
We cannot limit ourselves to just drilling into these current White House scandals. We must keep our eyes forward as well, and look toward the long game.
David Giffin | Emory University | @D_Giffin