A Presidency Imploding

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Since the beginning of the modern presidency under Franklin Roosevelt, every chief executive elected to a second term has suffered disaster during that term. FDR provoked a major political crisis when he tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, after which he guided the economy into a severe recession, undoing some of the economic gains of his first four years in office. Truman had Korea. Eisenhower faced Sputnik and the recession of 1958–59 (the worst in 20 years), followed by the U-2 incident and the collapse of a planned summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Lyndon Johnson suffered through Vietnam and widespread race riots. Nixon became embroiled in Watergate, was impeached and resigned. Reagan nearly lost office in the Iran-Contra scandal. Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” eventually led to his impeachment, though he was acquitted by the Senate. George W. Bush had Iraq, Katrina, and the financial meltdown of 2008. Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn.

Obama roundly defeated Mitt Romney to win reelection in 2012. Yet today, not even six months into his second term, he is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so. After deciding to push gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre, he failed to secure congressional passage of even his minimum program for universal background checks. Immigration reform, expected to be the signature domestic achievement of his second term, is hanging fire in the Senate, and faces questionable prospects in the House. The implementation of Obamacare is fraught with problems (on this see David Brooks’ column “Health Chaos Ahead,” in the April 25 New York Times). Foreign policy, normally a presidential strength when the nation is not actually at war, seems increasingly in disarray. Relations with Russia are fraying. No progress has been made on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The possibility of US intervention in Syria’s complex civil war seems to be increasing, with planning underway for an air campaign in support of the Syrian rebels, and a forward headquarters of the US Central Command already on the ground in Jordan. Add to these problems the troika of scandals currently roiling Washington (Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department’s secret spying on the Associated Press), and a picture of an administration nearing collapse begins to form.

Let’s examine briefly the three scandals just mentioned. The 9/11/12 attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, came about as a result of mistakes made by the Obama administration and the Republicans in Congress (who in 2011 turned down an administration request to provide more funds for embassy security). The administration made the scandal all its own by putting out misleading talking points that claimed the attack was not terror-related. It clearly did so for political purposes, seeking to preserve Obama’s reputation as a successful fighter of terrorism during the election campaign. The web of lies about Benghazi woven by the administration since last September will not bring it down, but the political damage is likely to be significant and lasting.

Today, not even six months into his second term, President Obama is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so.

The IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status probably won’t destroy the Obama presidency either, but it could. We don’t yet know just how high up the rot goes. If it can be shown that people in the White House encouraged the IRS campaign (or simply knew about it and did nothing), then the scandal rises to Nixonian levels. The betting here is that Obama and his people aren’t that stupid, but we’ll see. Don’t hold your breath for impeachment, but do expect a long drawn-out series of investigations that will bog down the administration for much of 2013.

The AP spying scandal is merely a continuation of the quasi-authoritarianism instituted by federal authorities after the original 9/11. One of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon was based in part on his use of wiretapping without a court order. Today the Department of Justice conducts warrantless wiretaps as a matter of course, thanks to the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2012, which Obama signed into law after his reelection. This particular scandal has legs because journalists were the target. But it’s really no more than business as usual in our Orwellian Republic. The administration may take some hits, but the damage will not be mortal.

Nothing that has happened so far in Obama’s second term rises to the level of Watergate. Yet, taken together, the mistakes and lies of the past eight months have this administration reeling. It truly is in danger of imploding — which for many on the Right would be good news. A crippled presidency, however, tends to breed uncertainty and malaise, with bad consequences for the economy. And there is the further danger that a crippled president might seek to redeem himself in foreign lands — Syria, for example, or Iran.

The second term woes of Obama’s predecessors were largely the result of hubris (or, in Ronald Reagan’s case, incipient senility). Obama on the other hand suffers principally from aloofness. He is under the impression that elections are all that matter. But we do not live in a plebiscitary democracy. Successful governing involves schmoozing with people you may secretly detest. It involves coming down from your pedestal and actually engaging other human beings who also have supporters and power. Obama has never wanted to do this. He prefers to stand alone, believing that the adoration of his supporters guarantees success. As a result he has few real resources to draw upon in times of trouble. And he is in trouble now. No single problem (the IRS scandal possibly excepted) can bring him down, but he faces the prospect of a slow political death from a thousand cuts. While he undoubtedly will seek to place blame for his troubles on those who have always opposed him, his foremost enemy dwells in the mirror.




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Comments

Fred Mora

Jon,

This is a good summary. Your depiction of King O's personality is right on the money. From a psychological point of view, you nailed it.

The only nitpick I would like to emit is about Benghazi. If the four American victims had been killed by, say, a roadside bomb, they'd be no scandal. The problem is not the security preparedness of the US consulates in Libya, or lack thereof due to Republican cuts. The problem is that at least two of the victims died because of sheer neglect and dereliction of duty in DC at the time of the attack.

Remember that the firefight started at 9PM local time (3 PM in DC). Washington DC was immediately informed. Two American died. American personnel left the consulate at 10 PM and fled to an annex a kilometer away. The annex was attacked around 2 AM, and two more Americans died. During these five hours, the White House would have had ample time to deploy multiple resources in Tripoli, not to mention aircrafts in Italy (about 1 hour of subsonic flight away).

Additionally, witnesses have reported that the WH explicitly ordered them to abort relief efforts and stand down. THIS is the real scandal.

So I don't think you can honestly ascribes all these deaths to "mistakes made by the Obama administration and the Republicans in Congress". The White House's actions during that afternoon account for at least two deaths.

Nixon never killed anyone, whereas these deaths were completely avoidable. So we are way past Watergate-level.

Compared to Benghazi, the IRS affair is a mere distraction, and I suspect Obama agrees.

Jon Harrison

Fred, in journalism it's important that we stick to the known facts. We still don't know where in the chain of command the stand-down order came from. Perhaps it came from the president, but we don't know that for a fact. Because the IJR or Fox News says it was the White House doesn't make it so.

In any case, the resources available for a rescue mission were absurdly small. A flyby by a fighter jet; a handful of special ops guys in Tripoli -- that's no way to protect an isolated diplomatic outpost in a distant and potentially hostile land. If the special ops team had been wiped out, too (a possibility given the very small number of troops), the administration would have been blamed for sending such a small force into harm's way. The administration is at fault for posting the diplomats out there to begin with; the Congress is at fault for cutting back on funds to protect our diplomats. Of the two the executive branch bears more blame, but Congress (especially the Republicans in the House) shares some responsibility.

The consulate should have been either evacuated or reinforced with at least 100 Marine guards long before the attack occurred. The State Department, the Defense Department, and the White House all dropped the ball. However, a big (indeed, global) empire will occasionally do something stupid that gets people killed. The British did it, the Russians too, and so have we. It doesn't follow from that that Obama should be impeached,

It's a scandal that the United States -- as a nation, and not just the current administration -- has chosen the path of empire. We have no business mucking around in places like Libya, but we have consciously chosen to do so. The ambassador and the other three Americans are casualties of empire. The entire nation and our way of life are casualties too, and that's what really matters.

Visitor

Point of information: Nixon was never impeached. He resigned before he could be impeached. Bill Clinton is the only elected president of the United States to be impeached. Also, Benghazi was exclusively an executive failure. Hillary Clinton refused to fund increased security even though ample funds were available. This is a red herring argument of the left. I agree with an other comment that these scandals far exceed Watergate having lived through both eras.

Jon Harrison

Yes, three articles of impeachment were passed by the House Judiciary Committee, but Nixon resigned before the full House could vote impeachment (which by then was a foregone conclusion). A bit nit-picky, but thanks for the correction.

The House voted to cut several hundred million dollars for embassy security. As I said, the executive branch bears more responsibility for Benghazi, but Congress shares some blame. There's really no doubt about it, if you examine the record objectively.

More to the point, Republicans and Democrats alike, in both the executive and legislative branches, have helped to shape the worldwide imperium we have become. A worldwide imperium will suffer little disasters like Benghazi from time to time. The only way to prevent them is to get out of the empire business (or better, not to get into it to begin with).

Fred Mora

Agree 100% about the US turning into an incompetent empire.

Tactically, I disagree with you: even a single military aircraft would have made a huge difference and frighten off the attackers. That's the crux of the matter.

It'll be interesting to see what actually transpired that night. It looks like complacency and incompetence rather than malice, but it doesn't make it right.

Jon Harrison

"Tactically . . . even a single military aircraft would have made a huge difference . . ."

How do you know that, Fred?

Fred Mora

How do I know that? Based on the reaction of similar rabble attacking US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "War porn" videos are all over the Internet. Sites like Weasel Zippers offer gunsight video taken by various planes, copters and drones opening fire on insurgents attacking US troops. The reaction after the first 30 mm burst or Hellfire missile is always the same: attackers run away.

Note that you don't even have to rely on a panicked reaction for having the attackers break ranks and flee. This is the logical response, since darkness would have prevented them from seeing, much less shooting at, the aircraft targeting them with infra-red sensors. Staying would be suicide.

I have yet to see a different reaction.

Statistically, it's therefore a safe bet that the reaction of the Benghazi attackers against an aerial threat would have been to flee.

QED.

Jon Harrison

I always cringe when commenters put "QED" (or the full spelling) at the end of a comment, as if writing it demonstrates anything other than the commenter's self-assurance. It makes the commenter look rather silly.

Had one or more aircraft been able to reach the consulate in time, it could not have fired on the attackers without possibly hitting Americans as well, given the conditions that night. There was no ground to air communication, as there is when U.S. forces call in air support. Therefore any airstrike would have been a dicey proposition at best. As for the terrorists fleeing, they might just as well have moved closer to the consulate. There was nothing to prevent them doing so, as there was no well-armed contingent of U.S. troops present. In the type of operations you cite in your comment, closing is not an option for the "rabble" because they would be running straight into our infantry. Hence they have no choice but to scatter. That scenario didn't apply at Benghazi.

No, the JCS chairman was correct when he stated in Congressional testimony that "the appropriate platform would have been boots on the ground ahead of the event."

Thinking rather more deeply about the circumstances that night is a better way to understand what could have been done. Surfing the internet doesn't quite do it, I'm afraid.

Fred Mora

No air-ground communication? Where did you read that? It's not true. You do know that the Americans had even deployed laser illuminators to paint the targets, right?

Jon Harrison

The consulate, where Stevens died, had neither the time nor the means to communicate with combat aircraft, had any been present. Later in the incident, at the CIA annex about a mile away, one individual was supposedly receiving images from a drone on a handheld device. So far as anyone knows, no targets were being "painted". Painting is not done until strike aircraft are on scene. The drone in question would not have been armed, and there is no evidence any strike aircraft were in the vicinity. Rush and Fox News are not necessarily the arbiters of reality, Fred.

Maintaining that whatever you want to believe must be the truth is a child's way of looking at the world, Fred. Constantly having to correct your highly "individual" view of reality is becoming rather tiresome, I must say.

None of us know everything about Benghazi, and probably we never will. I choose to give the JCS Chairman's views more weight than I do those of Mr. Fred Mora.

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