Despite my youthful appearance, I am old enough to remember when Jonathan Alter proclaimed the “Obama miracle” was a White House free of scandal.
President Barack Obama, Alter wrote, “has one asset that hasn’t received much attention: He’s honest.”
Maybe that sterling character assessment will survive the myriad scandals now engulfing the White House. Perhaps none of them will ever reach the president, who may just have the misfortune of an administration and civil service staffed with uncontrollable rogues.
What did the low-level IRS employees in Cincinnati know and when did they know it?
Conservatives are rightly skeptical of this, noting that from the IRS and EPA FOIA scandals to the AP eavesdropping business, every bit of misconduct seems to have cut in the president’s favor. Many attribute this to rough-and-tumble “Chicago-style politics,” where sometimes to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs (or laws).
Despite his goo-goo reputation, Obama’s climb up the political ladder was abetted by associations with machine pols and other unsavory characters from the Windy City. And ultimately, Harry Truman was right: the buck stops with the president, who gave the country such gifts as Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to begin with.
But there is also some truth to David Axelrod’s much-ridiculed observation: “Part of being president is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”
In other words, the government is too damn big. Not even community organizers can get a handle on it.
Pace Axelrod, that doesn’t let the president off the hook. Obama wanted this job, after all. And he wanted it so he could make the federal government bigger and vaster.
It also never dawns on the Axelrods or the Obamas that there is so much beneath them in the country that they can’t know anything about, from civil society to the health care sector. The events they seek to micromanage are so often beyond their competence.
But when we give the federal government the power to look at our private financial transactions, listen to our phone calls and regulate political speech, we shouldn’t be surprised when those powers are abused. Neither should we be surprised when those powers expand, with the government even inserting itself into Americans’ prayers.
Obamacare. Gun registries. Kill lists. We are led to believe that information obtained by the government will forever be hermetically sealed from anyone who can use it for political or partisan advantage.
Government agencies are inherently political, even when staffed with career government employees. This is especially true when Democrats are in power, because so many civil servants are already on the blue team.
Politically active IRS employees are, not surprisingly, heavily Democratic. Columnist Tim Carney looked at the candidate contributions made by employees of the Cincinnati IRS office where the tea partiers were hassled. “In 2012, every donation traceable to employees at that office went to either President Obama or liberal Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio,” he wrote.
Shocking that these apolitical creatures would be so alarmed by conservative groups.
Republicans aren’t quite as good at politicization — they have some structural disadvantages in the catacombs of big government — but they sure try when it’s their turn at bat.
Electing the right people was only one of the prescriptions the Founding Fathers devised for avoiding political corruption. Limiting what the federal government can do to — and for — us is even more important.
“It’s nice to elect the right people but that isn’t the way you solve things,” Milton Friedman once advised. “The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.”
If we had a truly limited government, like the one the Founders designed, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem. There just aren’t a lot of tools for Chicago politicians in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. A smaller government would also be easier to manage — people might even be able to keep track of what’s going on inside of it.
Unfortunately, some government official will probably make it out of these scandals with more power than they had going in. The government is perhaps the only institution in American life that is regularly rewarded for its failures, accidental and deliberate, with more money and power.
When faced with problems, politicians can only spend money and grunt, like the dad on the 1990s television sitcom “Home Improvement,” “More power!” Only when that cycle is broken will a scandal-free White House be even a remote possibility.
Jonathan Alter was wrong. David Axelrod is right.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book “Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?“ Follow him on Twitter.