Obama managing his second term poorly

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In newsrooms across America, conservative columnists are sitting at their desks trying to resist the urge to smoke a post-coital cigarette in celebration of their good fortune. Literally everything President Barack Obama does is grist for a conspiracy theory meme that ends with his impeachment and removal from office.

If nothing else, Mr. Obama has been overly generous in giving some of my colleagues the journalistic equivalent of a contact high on a fairly regular basis. Second terms are rough, but the Obama administration has outdone itself in recent days by offering up a combo platter of old and new scandals.

That old standby, the Benghazi attack, has been eclipsed by a new story about the Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of anti-tax, small-government groups applying for tax-exempt status. In advance of a detailed audit of those activities that will be released this week, the IRS apologized to the Tea Party and other conservative groups for targeting them in what has been a chilling fishing expedition.

The outrage meter in Washington has, of course, been spinning into the red zone. Professional gas bags who literally take no responsibility for passing meaningful legislation took umbrage with the Obama administration for presiding over a criminal enterprise that, in their humble opinion, would embarrass Richard Nixon.

Although you wouldn't know it from the poor quality of the coverage this weekend, there is a big difference between what Nixon did and what the IRS has confessed to doing since 2010. The Nixon White House ordered the auditing of that administration's political foes. Only the craziest right-wingers are accusing the Obama administration of assembling an enemies list and dispatching the IRS to dig up dirt on them.

Still, that hasn't stopped the opportunists from pouncing. The Obama administration's proximity to such open-and-shut cases of taxpayer abuse is indicative of its general inability to tame the worst excesses of the institutions it was sent to Washington to govern.

The chaos around the backlog of disability claims at Veterans Affairs and the new report showing sexual assaults and rape in the U.S. military have gone up in recent years does not exactly inspire confidence in this administration's ability to manage ungainly bureaucracies. Mr. Obama has not hired competent managers. That doesn't make him a crook, although it does appear to make him an inept judge of talent.

There's no reason why Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS division on tax-exempt organizations, should still have her job, but this administration has proven itself cautious to the point of insensibility. Mr. Obama won't fire anyone until he's absolutely sure that it won't reflect badly on his administration.

Honesty compels even the most partisan Democrat to admit that Mr. Obama is a maddeningly passive figure by the standards of modern Washington. As with Syria, the president draws rhetorical red lines and then fails to do much if anyone steps over them. This is why he has become the least feared politician in a town where the opposition party is doing its best to make itself extinct.

It's not enough to point to a dysfunctional Congress in ascribing blame for the sorry state of our politics. The president's tendency to let events happen to him has created a power vacuum that undermines an otherwise worthy agenda. It also creates the perception of corruption where there may only be benign ineptitude.

The defeat of legislation mandating tougher background checks for gun purchases wasn't a referendum on the NRA's strength as much as a declaration of intent by the GOP to oppose the administration on even its most innocuous initiatives.

It was amazing to see the president's will stymied on an issue that enjoyed more than a 90 percent approval rating from the public. Ironically, Mr. Obama appeared more engaged in campaigning for tougher background checks than he was for any other issue in recent memory. That loss sent a signal to his political opponents to double down on the stupid, the ridiculous and the crazy.

If the president were a more forceful figure, this IRS nonsense would be an embarrassing two- or three-day story because the bureaucrats responsible would have been fired already. Now, it will be impossible for the IRS to scrutinize, say, right-wing churches that instruct their flock on whom to vote for, without it looking like a partisan witch hunt ordered by a liberal president.

Mr. Obama finally did the right thing Monday by expressing his outrage about the IRS's lack of neutrality. Still, those inclined to believe it is worse than Watergate won't be satisfied until they're in a position to obstruct President Joe Biden -- and President Hillary Clinton after him.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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