The Obama Tactic: “I Didn’t Know”

By | June 24, 2013 | 0 Comments

The last czar of Russia, Nicholas II, was a handsome man. By all accounts, he was a good husband and father. But he was a bad czar, incompetent and indifferent to the suffering of his people. Nevertheless, when Russians complained about the corrupt, inefficient government, they often added, “If only the czar knew what was going on, he would do something.”
This behavior probably was common wherever people were ruled by kings or other autocrats. Later, under the communists, people would say, “If only Stalin knew what is going on, he wouldn’t allow it.” The blatant contradiction, of course, is that a powerful ruler with a pervasive intelligence service must know what is going on, or else he is a complete incompetent.
Public opinion polls show that President Obama’s approval rating is falling somewhat. But the public’s opinion of Congress and other government agencies is even lower. Many people are upset by the scandals involving the abandonment of our people at Benghazi, the snooping on reporters and everyone else by the NSA, and the intimidation of opponents of the administration by the IRS. Yet even these people may be unwilling to blame Obama. Why?
For example, the president claimed that he learned of the IRS scandal the same way ordinary citizens did – from the media. Yet the IRS commissioner visited the White House 157 times in four years, while his predecessor visited the Bush White House exactly once. At least five of these visits were with Obama himself. Moreover, the IRS commissioner’s chief of staff reportedly made over 300 visits to the White House. One might hope that the only item they discussed was the IRS role in the implementation of ObamaCare. One might hope for a lot of things.
But Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of the targeting of conservative groups, refused to testify before Congress. So we are entitled to ask, “How many times did Lerner visit the White House?” And we are entitled to ask, as people asked before President Nixon was forced to resign, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” But most people aren’t asking. Why?
In the case of a czar or a king, we can understand why people may believe that he is unaware of the shenanigans perpetrated by his officials. As children, many of us read stories about a king who disguised himself as a peasant, went out into the city, and discovered how corrupt and oppressive his officials really were. In addition, there is the fact that monarchs inherit their thrones, so it is not difficult to believe that they may not be suited for the job.
And then there was the belief that kings were divinely chosen, so devout people hesitated to criticize the ruler for fear of committing blasphemy. But how can these factors possibly apply in nations where the leaders are democratically elected? They do not inherit their jobs. Although many of them come from prominent families, many others do not – for example, President Obama. And no one believes that presidents are divinely chosen. People have enough trouble believing that the election was legitimate in the first place.
So the question remains: Why do many people fail to blame the president for wrongdoing on the part of his appointees and other subordinates? Why do they assume that he is unaware of the problems, and that if he were aware, he would resolve them? I don’t know the answer, but I have some suggestions.
There may be some remnant of the “divine right of kings” at work here. Yes, the president is merely an ordinary citizen, chosen by the voters to lead them for a fixed term according to strict rules set down in the Constitution. Nevertheless, the presidency has acquired some trappings reminiscent of monarchy.
The president takes the oath of office on a Bible. To me, this emphasizes the solemn obligation he has undertaken. But to others, this might suggest that he has been anointed with special powers, and is owed respect not only for his office, but also for his own sake.
The president enters to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.” The original presidential march was “Hail Columbia,” a majestic old tune that praises the nation, not the leader. This song is almost never heard today, but I believe it was a mistake to replace it with “Hail to the Chief” in the 19th century. Singing the praises of the nation and of liberty is one thing; singing the praises of the leader is quite another.
In addition, there is the fact that the president is both chief of state and head of government. In the British, Dutch, Belgian, and Scandinavian systems, the king or queen is chief of state, with little real power but serving as a focus of national pride and loyalty. The prime minister, on the other hand, is head of government. He or she may be voted out of office at any time. Thus one may criticize the prime minister harshly, yet at the same time speak of the monarch with respect, as being above politics.
The good news is that we do not have a monarch to reign over us. The bad news is that many people hesitate to criticize the president too severely, because he represents the focus of our national loyalty as well as being a politician. The more the president resembles a monarch, the worse this problem becomes. And with the IRS intimidating political opponents, and the NSA eavesdropping on reporters and monitoring emails, we must admit that the president has powers that King George III never dreamt of – and undoubtedly would have considered beneath his dignity. (Read other people’s mail? Simply not done, old fellow.)
And we must admit that there may be an element of racism here. Some people may hesitate to criticize the president for fear of being called “racist.” Various liberal pundits openly proclaim that this is exactly what Obama’s critics really are. No one wants to be called a “racist.” But if one harbors secret racist feelings, this accusation may be especially painful.
If the truth be told, how many liberals secretly feel that Obama is beyond his depth, and is being bamboozled by scheming white folks? To paraphrase Forrest Gump, racism is as racism does. People who expect less of someone simply because he belongs to a minority group are, in fact, racists – no matter how loudly they proclaim themselves to be “liberals,” “progressives,” “lovers of all the peoples of the Earth,” or whatever.
President Obama must be judged according to the same standards by which President Nixon and other presidents were judged – neither more nor less.
If the czar didn’t know what was going on in his country, he should have – it was his solemn responsibility. The same is true of the president. For the leader of a great nation, “I didn’t know” is not an excuse; it is an admission of incompetence.
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