The new narrative: Obama is ‘President Passerby’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Now that it seems obvious the Obama scandals won’t merely fade away, the White House has segued from blame avoidance to blame shifting. Even accepting that horrible things happened — Benghazi emails were revised, conservative groups were targeted, journalists were spied on — motive is everything.

Both Obama and the Republicans will seek to craft a narrative. Interestingly, they seem to be settling on the same one, for entirely different reasons.

At the extreme ends of the spectrum, you have either a Nixonian leader who has ordered henchmen to smite his enemies, or a handful of bureaucrats who simply dropped the ball, and unwittingly, messed up. Oops!

And then we have the messy middle, which is where things seem to have settled. Advancing this meme is in Obama’s best interest (mistakes were made!), but — absent a smoking gun which brings down the Administration — it’s also important for Republicans to settle on a story that the public will actually believe.

The media is helping. Obama isn’t a bad guy, he’s merely out of the loop, we’re told. He is “President Passerby,” as Dana Milbank calls him.  And besides, as David Axlerod said this morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” government is just so vast that nobody can really know what’s going on (as one of my Twitter followers noted, why didn’t Bush think of that to explain Abu Ghraib away?)

I can’t decide if this is criticism — or a way of giving Obama a pass. But, lacking additional evidence (which may well come), this is where we find ourselves today.

Perception is reality, and while it may well be that Obama is some calculating Machiavellian figure, it doesn’t feel that way. That insinuation has always lacked verisimilitude. It’s much easier to believe Obama is a passive observer, than that he is evil. It confirms our perception of him.

Being out of the loop doesn’t exonerate him in my mind (though it might in the public’s.) The buck is supposed to stop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — and it makes little difference to me whether you order — or inspire (and tolerate) — a culture of corruption where “Chicago-style” politics are carried out with a wink and a nod.

But people are more forgiving of a bumbling leader than of a corrupt politician. And staffers and bureaucrats can always be dispatched.

Obama has survived, so far, partly because of the same thing that drives his enemies mad: His insouciance. He doesn’t get riled, even when the situation merits that response. He brushes off criticism like so much dandruff off a navy blue blazer. This signals that he’s not alarmed, and we shouldn’t be either. And it works. Mostly. And I suppose it will continue to work until it doesn’t. Will his passiveness eventually backfire?

Maybe, or maybe not. We seem to have settled, for now at least, on the notion that he is like Henry II, who inadvertently signaled to the knights they should murder Thomas Becket. In other words, there is a culture of corruption.

Sen. Marco Rubio seems to agree with this theory. Last night on “The O’Reilly Factor,” he said,  “[W]hat has become clearly apparent is a culture…that basically use the government as an instrument of political activity to target your political opponents…” He later added, “I don’t think that kind of environment can flourish unless there is created a space or an environment where it is encouraged.”

Matt K. Lewis