Published May 23, 2013
“Part of being president is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.”
-- David Axelrod, longtime political adviser to President Obama, in a May 15 interview on MSNBC shielding Obama from personal responsibility for abuses of power within his administration.
President Obama today will announce that rather than continuing to take personal charge of the covert program that targets individuals abroad for death, including American citizens, he will shift responsibility to a new bureaucracy at the Pentagon.
Don’t you feel better now?
Obama says that he is a proponent not of big government or small government but “smart government” that is adaptive, reactive, transparent and efficient. But what we saw on display Wednesday in the testimony from current and former IRS officials was dumb government in its fullest flower.
Literally dumb in the case of IRS lieutenant Lois Lerner, who after asserting her innocence sat silent on the grounds that she might incriminate herself. Playing dumb was former IRS boss Douglas Shulman who so frustrated his questioners with denials and non-answers that even Democrats were warning of an independent counsel.
While Power Play recognizes that those in the national security world are generally of a more valorous breed than those who populate the ranks of tax collectors, Obama’s announcement today of a new policy for the killing of individuals deemed threats to national security is part of the president’s larger approach to government.
Obama favors centralizing power in Washington, but decentralizing responsibility.
The Obamian dream of “smart government” is a vast operation powered by the same logarithmic “big data” that powers Google and the president’s other allies in the technology sector. With more and better data coupled with more and better computers, the federal bureaucracy would be able to meet needs and empower officials to solve problems with the same ease with which Google knows this political note might be interested in coupons for barbeque restaurants and “Shaun the Sheep” episodes.
As Obama also likes to point out, the government is made up of people, our fellow citizens. The government, he says, is “us.” But alas, that is the problem.
The typically American view of human nature (or at least the nature of other humans) is to know that few among us ought to be trusted with power. Contrary to the president’s message that Americans need to abandon their deepening distrust of the government, the American experience with people in the bureaucracy is hugely negative.
As Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat from a long-forgotten wing of his party, said: “The only thing that saves us from the bureaucracy is inefficiency. An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty.”
This kind of suspicion and distrust is part of the reason the Founders opted to have one person be held accountable for the function of government. It was easier when governing a nation of 4 million than one of 310 million, to be sure. But over time, the idea of a president personally accountable for the actions of his government has endured. Given the near megalomania of some presidents, it is not surprising that many chief executives have embraced this role.
Obama’s vision of a decentralized government – pulsating nodes of big data – runs counter to that idea. For all the comparisons of late between Obama and Richard Nixon, the main difference is that Nixon cast himself as the center of power while Obama casts himself a worker among workers, a node among nodes.
So rather than take the IRS by the scruff of the neck and shake the corruption from it, Obama delegates and distances.
The same is true for the growing alarm about bullying tactics being used by his Department of Justice against reporters and news outlets: delegate and distance. For all of Obama’s talk about loving a free press, he continues to stand behind a Justice Department that has shocked the consciences of even stalwart Obama supporters.
Corruption and abuse of power, even when not the fault of the president, is the responsibility of the president, even more so when the targets are his own enemies.
When one of the nodes pulsating out there in the vast darkness of the bureaucracy turns bad, the president’s job is to fix it. The Founders personified the federal government for that very purpose: accountability that begets action.
Obama today will announce the addition of a new node: an office to decide when the federal government can target people for death.
It was considered good ahead of his re-election to portray Obama as a philosopher warrior, pondering Aquinian theory before sentencing a terrorist to die, keeping a “kill list” readily at hand lest another name needs to be added or a successful kill be celebrated.
But the kill list proved problematic when, according to officials talking to the Washington Post and New York Times, three American citizens were mistakenly targeted for death. One of the four Americans killed was a famous Islamist militant who had long preached jihad against his native country. The other three were killed for proximity or relation to him.
So Obama is setting up a new office to be more “transparent” about the killings and to provide some form of due process for these summary executions by robot. This, of course, deflects responsibility from him and his successors but it also creates a new, probably permanent, office of killing people with drones.
Having seen the handiwork of the IRS and Department of Justice on display in recent weeks, one doubts that the civil libertarians so alarmed at Obama’s kill list and drones will feel more comfortable knowing that the power has been decentralized to a government bureau to one day be populated by the new Lerners and Shulmans of our “smart government.”
And Now, A Word From Charles
“It is a preposterous idea of [James] Rosen being a flight risk. I mean, the guy lives and breathes journalism. He practically sleeps here. I mean, what is he going to do, go to Rio and report in Portuguese? And it isn't only that he has a wife and two small kids, but if he left America, who would ever appreciate his Howard Cosell imitation? I mean, the guy would die.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier
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.