President Barack Obama at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Oct. 18, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
I am not qualified to say with any confidence whether Barack Obama is a “bystander president” but recent developments tend to suggest that he is probably Barack “Oh, I don’t know” bama president. It is a measure of my shallowness that I am writing an entire post just get that little cheap shot out there.
Two particular developments point to the president’s apparent disengagement from the details of his job. As Peter Baker reports in The New York Times today, “Mr. Obama’s plea of ignorance may do less to deflect blame than to prompt new questions about just how much in charge he really is.”
His plea of ignorance relates to themes as diverse as the online execution of his defining political legacy of healthcare reform and spying on the leaders of allies. In both cases, the president and his aides’ response, shorn of all the calculated political equivocation, is that he was not aware of the details. And that’s where the problem lies.
Obama skeptics—and there is a legion of them with unvarnished glee on their faces—insist that the troublesome rollout of the web interface of his Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare is evidence enough that the president has lost control. In particular, they argue that since this was the signature issue on which he staked his political legacy he should have been practically sitting with techies to check the website’s navigation and every single link on it. That is, of course, ridiculous but it is always the ridiculous that concentrates minds in realpolitik.
While I am not so worked up over the screw-ups in the web interface, I am certainly intrigued by his denial that he was not aware that his own spymasters had bugged the personal mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. If the personal mobile phone of the leader of one of your most important allies on the friendliest continent was being tapped for years, I would think that the president would be made aware at some point. This is not just some random suspect being monitored but the chancellor of Germany on her personal mobile. It is an affront for which it is hard to find much extenuating circumstance even within the barely moral world of espionage.
What was the overriding rationale behind the decision to eavesdrop on her? Were they expecting to hear something terribly incriminating being plotted against the United States which they had suspected but could not confirm otherwise? And if they did hear something terribly incriminating why did it never reach the ears of the president? And if it did indeed reach the president, why are we being now told that he was not aware of the tapping? If after years of monitoring her the National Security Agency (NSA) seems to have produced nothing more than some useless insights into her personal life, then what was the purpose behind continuing it? This seems like a case of casting the net as wide as they could and then sit and wait for someone, somewhere to incriminate themselves.
It does not appear as if a simple cost-benefit analysis of bugging Merkel’s personal mobile phone was done beforehand. If reports are to be believed, it had been going on since 2002. Is there someone weighing the value of listening to her for over a decade? One is hoping that this was some sort of a rogue operation from which the president was excluded in the interest of plausible deniability. If I were Merkel, this is what I would have said to Obama in my protest phone call: “Mr. President, since you already know what I am about to say, I am not going to say anything. Thank you. It was nice knowing you.”
Unless the tactical gains of secretly listening to her conversations over the years were so high as to balance any potential damage to the long-term strategic relationship with Germany, I do not see the wisdom of it all. Of course, a lot of facile and blasé explanations are forthcoming about the need to spy on the rest of the world just as the rest of the world spies right back.
It is possible that Obama would like to avoid visiting Germany altogether until his presidency ends because what’s he going to say to Merkel personally that would be placate her? He couldn’t possibly tell her that he did not know without simultaneously admitting that he was not in charge.
Tailpiece: It appears that the NSA taps everything and everyone, so much so that they must be tapping each other tapping each other tapping each other ad infinitum.