The grit, tenacity, and unmitigated nerve imprinted in the DNA of most elected chief executives rarely — if ever — allows them to admit a mistake, or take responsibility for independent actions taken under their authority.
When the mea culpa comes, it’s almost always done as the last act to save a politician’s neck from the political chopping block. In equally rare occasions, it can also come meekly and without sincerity in the hopes of diffusing an already wildly spiraling caldron of scandal.
Such is the case now with President Barack Obama.
In the space of just days, Obama has been thrust into the center of successive scandals that paint his as a Big Brother administration which uses the Internal Revenue Service to harass dissenting tea party groups, and taps the phones of Associated Press reporters to ferret out leaks from within his own ranks.
What Obama or senior members of his administration knew about any of these incidents remains to be determined.
But the young turks who work for the president, and cavalierly call theirs the “No Drama Obama” administration, have not been so cool dealing with the trifecta of threats to their leader’s legacy.
Obama’s own reaction — initially none, and then subsequently increased decibels of ultimate responsibility and outrage — have left many Americans, regardless of party, underwhelmed by their commander-in-chief.
Presidential scholar Shirley Anne Warshaw of Gettysburg College believes Obama’s reaction was more the product of personality than politics.
“He was slow coming, but it’s just his governing style of being methodical and making sure he has all the information,” Warshaw said. “Barack Obama is extremely cautious about everything he says. He does not talk off the cuff.”
Aloof demeanor provides ammo
The president may feel that governing in a dispassionate, lawyerly manner is best. But that certainly has not put off congressional Republicans who’ve adopted a scorched earth policy of opposing him.
And in dealing with the three current scandals, Obama’s reserved, sometimes aloof, demeanor has gifted potent ammunition to the GOP.
But in their zeal to pummel the president, Republicans have laid bare a lingering wound that apparently will not heal. This wound, first scythed open nearly 40 years ago, has festered among congressional Republicans, but also afflicts their Democratic counterparts.
In effect, Republicans were forced to admit the mistake of nominating Richard Nixon, a man who saw enemies everywhere and actively persecuted them, for president.
Nixon eventually had to relinquish the presidency, not because he orchestrated the break-in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate building, but because he led the cover-up of the break-in’s investigation.
Among Nixon’s many political sins were two that Obama or his underlings may have repeated — wire tappings, and unleashing the IRS on reporters and political opponents.
Ever since the GOP had to swallow impeaching one of their own, there’s been a gnawing desire to get even with the holier than thou Democrats who ran Nixon out of Washington on a rail.
They had to wait a while, as Democrats nearly found another gotcha moment in President Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra, arms-for-hostages deal.
Earlier, when Reagan tried to appoint Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, Democrats recoiled. They remembered Bork’s opportunistic role in the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” when he kept Nixon’s Watergate cover-up alive by firing the special prosecutor investigating the break-in. The late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter also played a key role in derailing Bork’s nomination.
But when their time came, during President Bill Clinton’s administration, Republicans took it with gusto. The GOP was relentless in its pursuit of Clinton’s Whitewater business dealings. That probe led to the discovery of a presidential affair with a White House intern.
Clinton initially lied about the relationship, but relented after undeniable evidence came to light. Republicans impeached him, but unlike Nixon he remained in office.
Democrats responded during the George W. Bush years by aggressively questioning the validity of Bush’s war in Iraq, and the billions the Bush administration paid war contractor Halliburton – the previous employer of Vice President Dick Cheney.
Since then, Republicans have been laying in wait for their next opportunity to exorcise their unresolved presidential complex.
Aiming to weaken Obama’s clout
Obama’s current three scandals, and his perceived laissez-faire attitude towards dealing with them, has provided conservatives their next best window to even the score.
Lebanon Valley College political science professor and GOP expert James Broussard said Republicans have seized upon the three episodes in an attempt to undermine the credibility of Obama’s 2012 election mandate.
“They’ll be thinking, ‘We can’t un-elect the guy, but we can essentially nullify any clout he has,” Broussard said.
The tactic is surely meant to aide the Republican cause in the 2014 midterm elections.
But in executing the stratagem, many conservatives have curiously referenced the blemish that haunts the GOP to this day — Watergate and Nixon’s obsessive fixation on his perceived enemies.
“This is Nixonian,” conservative Fox News commentator Lou Dobbs said of Obama last week. “This is a president who’s inner Nixon is being revealed.”
It’s not the first time conservatives and Republicans have likened an Obama action to Watergate.
While looking into claims that former Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak was offered an administration job so as not to oppose Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter’s re-election, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., predicted an administrative stonewall a la Watergate.
“The White House will be falling back on a concerted scheme and cover-up strategy not seen in Washington since the days of Watergate,” he said in 2010.
Issa followed that last year by comparing the so-called “Fast and Furious” gun-running investigation to being “like Iran Contra, like Watergate.”
Also last year, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said the administration’s $535 million support of the failed solar energy company Solyndra “makes Watergate look like child’s play.”
Thus far, none of those comparisons have born out, but Republicans keep on making them.
And Obama seems determined to fuel his political opponents with the weaponry to needle him.
‘He has the responsibility’
When asked about the revived allegations that his administration covered-up information on the Benghazi attacks, Obama shot back: “There is no there, there.”
It sounded eerily like Clinton’s evasive deposition retort: “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”
If Obama has attempted a cover-up of any or all of the three scandals he currently faces, he — like most elected chief executives — has failed to take to heart a basic political tenant articulated last week by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell during a visit with The Patriot-News editorial board.
“I hate the word cover-up,” said Rendell, a fellow Democrat. “But even if you try to spin, or if you try to cover-up, that becomes a worse sin than the original failure. President Obama runs the government, and he has the responsibility for it.”
Republicans will hope that responsibility doesn’t prompt the president to admit culpability – indirect or otherwise – too soon. There are still 18 months before the midterm elections.