Published May 21, 2013
“I think a lot of federal employees do their work under the radar.”
-- Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents more than 150,000 federal workers including those at the IRS, in a May 2012 interview with The Hill.
The White House has changed its story about who knew what and when as it relates to the targeting of President Obama’s political enemies by the IRS.
That’s not a good thing. Prior to the story switch, the White House was able to hold the line that Team Obama had been direct and forthcoming about the IRS abuses and that the president and his top aides learned about the scandal in the news. They were just as shocked as everyone else.
But now we know that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was clued in about a damning report on IRS misconduct and that word was also sent to top aides to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew so his department could brace for the news. But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was adamant that no one told President Obama.
There’s a question here about why the president’s top lawyer and chief of staff kept this news from him, even as they were spreading the word beyond the White House. One supposes it was to preserve plausible deniability for the president and to afford him the chance to express shock when word came out. It also bought Obama some more time to address the scandal.
There are some immediate repercussions to the changing story line.
First, it further damages the credibility of Carney and the White House communications team, which in recent weeks has had to fess up about misleading the press about a raid by Islamist militants on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya and try to explain away the heavy-handed tactics used against reporters by the Obama Justice Department.
The president and his team have consistently limited their statements to the report on the wrongdoing, not the wrongdoing itself. It remains unclear if there had been any advance warnings sent to the White House about the misconduct itself, rather than just the report. This may prove important later when investigators are poring over emails and records, but for now it reinforces the sense that the administration is withholding.
And if it does ever come out that anyone in Obamaland had warning of the actual misconduct, legalistic answers will be little protection, especially from reporters and congressional investigators. As on the Benghazi raid, it wouldn’t be much help to rely on parsing.
Second, the Monday story shift raises some questions of competency. What kind of a White House counselor and chief of staff would try to keep a lid on a scandal that involves the most disliked federal agency targeting the president’s adversaries? Doing so in furtherance of a weak communications strategy would be very poor judgment indeed.
Whatever reasons Obama’s top advisers had for keeping the news from him and then allowing the communications office to put forward an inaccurate narrative, it is important to understand that the underlying motives here go beyond dealing with the press and public.
With some 100,000 employees fanned out across the nation, the IRS is one of the brightest stars in the constellation of government worker unions. And government worker unions are perhaps the most important, most influential part of the Democratic coalition. Whatever the president does concerning the federal workforce is a matter of massive political significance.
Some conservative outlets have pointed to a March 31, 2010 visit by Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, to the White House campus as evidence of some collusion with the president to target his enemies since the visit came just before the targeting of Obama’s enemies began. That’s poppycock. She was there for a big dog and pony show on “workplace flexibility,” not some hush-hush huddle with Obama.
But Kelley has been a frequent visitor. Excluding five executive branch visits for big events and parties, records show another five visits by a Colleen Kelley for high-level meetings that go un-described, including a December 2011 visit to the West Wing with Obama as her host.
Kelley’s access and influence reflects the clout of her union, especially ahead of Obama’s re-election effort.
With private-sector unions spinning down to insignificance, government worker unions are the only growth area for organized labor. But even that has been problematic, as states continue to crack down on powerful government worker unions and local governments find expensive payrolls and benefits packages unaffordable. On the federal level, pay freezes and furloughs have taken their toll too.
Obama has been able to keep his political patrons on board by reminding them how much worse things would be under Republican control. But they still want much more from Obama than he has been willing or able to provide.
Consider, then, what would happen if the White House really got serious about the IRS scandal and appointed an outsider to come in and start scouring. Government worker unions would be furious and the chance that a low-level employee would make a high-level accusation of wrongdoing would go way up.
Obama is obliged politically and practically to protect unionized government workers. He owes them and they may hold the key to insulating his administration from the worst of the scandal. While it might help with the press and public to crack down on the IRS as former President Bill Clinton once did, Obama may not be able to take on this key part of the Democratic constituency. Times have changed and so has the Democratic base.
The involvement of these powerful political patrons may help explain not only why Obama isn’t showing more spine on the scandal but also why his top aides were so anxious and secretive about news of the scandal itself.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.