Aloof, shifty Obama: Nixon times ten thousand!

Our evil president managed to both mastermind the IRS flap and be such a bad boss that no one told him about it

Published May 21, 2013 3:07PM (EDT)

According to Jay Carney, everyone in the White House knew about the big IRS scandal for a few weeks before it went public. Everyone except the president because this whole month has been a season-long plot arc on HBO's "Veep." (Speaking of, where's Joe Biden been lately?) Everyone was afraid to tell their boss about this dumb thing the IRS did, and then he learned about it on the news, and now he is probably super pissed.

Clearly Obama is a horrible boss, and the White House is a toxic work environment, probably, where people are afraid to report bad news to their superiors. Just like Nixon, times ten thousand.

There is a small problem, though, with the "Obama didn't know" story, and that is it ruins the great "Obama did this himself" story. The right has compensated essentially by saying that the president is indirectly responsible for the IRS applying extra scrutiny to conservative groups because the president encouraged a culture of liberalism. (Again we are obviously dealing with Nixon reborn and even worse than before.) Among conservatives, the notion that the president caused this to happen by loudly disagreeing with Citizens United is now essentially gospel. The Corner yesterday was full of amazing illustrations of the right's unrecognizable interpretation of Obama's psyche. (John O'Sullivan compares -- at great length -- the Tea Party to St. Thomas Becket and Obama to Henry II.)

It still looks to me that the scandal is still primarily the result of overworked, ill-motivated bureaucrats carrying out a poorly conceived assignment from their apparently incompetent bosses. But, you know, I am also of the opinion that most "Tea Party" groups shouldn't be tax-exempt "social welfare" groups because they're dedicated almost solely to electoral politics. I really don't think lifelong Cincinnati-based civil servants actually intended to crush the conservative movement. The IRS just doesn't know how to interpret and police a horrifically vague statute. That view of events is obviously less fun than spending the entire summer screaming "Watergate."

Still, while the White House initially seemed to be handling this well, with the president in full "We'll get to the bottom of this and fire everyone responsible mode" (maybe he was so mad because everyone knew about it but him!), it is now sort of ridiculous how flat-footed they seem.

For one thing, it turned out not to be true that there was a flood of new 501(c)4 applications in 2010, as poor Lois Lerner initially said. (The flood mainly came in 2011–2012.)

And it also turns out that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was apparently ill-informed about who knew what when. Last week, it was just the White House counsel. Now it turns out (and I may have mentioned this) that apparently the counsel told Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and "other members of the senior staff" weeks before the rest of the country (and the president) learned about it and the Treasury Department released the inspector general's report.

So why didn't Obama know? Carney says the White House counsel said he shouldn't know about the investigation as it was ongoing. That makes sense, mostly. We don't want the president to be deeply involved in the IRS and investigations into the agency -- as I thought this scandal was supposed to be in the process of showing us -- because we don't want partisan meddling in the IRS's important work! It seems like once the report is right about to be released, and once the chief of staff knows about it, someone should brief the president, maybe. But on the other hand, I guess the argument against doing so is that an unscrupulous president would then ... spike the report and not allowed it to be released.

No matter the reason Obama was kept out of the loop, the fact that he was will definitely help Maureen Dowd write her next column about how "aloof" and "disconnected" the president is. "He is an aloof, disconnected, rudderless, shockingly weak President Bambi, something-something-something Michelle's arms," she will say. And important people across the Eastern Seaboard will nod, sagely.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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