The pernicious myth of Obama’s “incompetence”

Months after getting the Benghazi and IRS stories completely wrong, pundits write off the president again

Published October 30, 2013 6:26PM (EDT)

                    (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Excuse me if I sit out this round of hyperventilating over President Obama’s alleged “incompetence” on matters ranging from the Affordable Care Act roll out to the NSA spying scandal. Because we just played this game last spring.

Five months ago cable news and the Web were aflame with charges that the Obama White House had reached either a new level of tyranny or ineptitude after supposed “new” revelations about Benghazi, the IRS non-scandal and the administration’s spying on journalists. In fact, the heavy-handed investigation of leaks targeting journalists in creepy new ways was the only story that merited serious coverage (and of course it faded more quickly than the other two.) Likewise, the revelations that the NSA is listening in on the cellphone calls of our allies, and reports that Obama didn’t know about it, is the story that really matters. But we’ve got wall-to-wall coverage of hearings on the ACA, with the NSA stuff thrown in to make all of the “Has Obama lost control of government?” (an actual chyron on CNN yesterday) hyperventilating more defensible.

So Richard Cohen hysterically declares the latest mess “a question of competence” (Obama’s, of course). If that sounds familiar, it’s because the National Journal’s Josh Krashaar wrote about “Obama’s crisis of competence” in the wake of the Benghazi/IRS/reporter-spying “scandals.” Declaring the president incompetent may be a new symptom of false equivalence and journalistic balance – OK, the right says Obama is evil (and a Kenyan Muslim usurper ineligible to be president), and we won’t go that far. The left says he’s being sabotaged by an extremist Republican Party that won’t accept his legitimacy; well, that’s a little shrill. Let’s find something in the middle; how about “incompetent”?

Over at CBS, conservative favorite Sharyl Attkisson told us in May that even her White House sources admitted to “incompetence” on Benghazi. "We're portrayed by Republicans as either being lying or idiots," said one Obama administration official. "It's actually closer to us being idiots." On, Lara Brown derided “a clueless White House” while USA Today asked “Is Obama under siege?” and advanced the storyline that the administration was guilty of “incompetence” if not malice in the trifecta of alleged scandals.

On the right, of course, the storyline was uglier. Half-term Sarah Palin declared on Twitter that Obama was “either a liar or incompetent,” while the Daily Caller’s Jim Treacher insisted Obama knew all about the deep dark IRS, Benghazi and Holder scandals. “The only alternative is that he’s utterly, criminally incompetent. Either way, he’s unfit for office.” Well, that’s not news on the right. They impeached the last Democratic president, remember? But even Democrat Bob Shrum declared the IRS scandal was evidence of “incompetence on par with Jimmy Carter’s.”

That much of the world of punditry, including some liberals, was wrong about the substance and symbolism of the IRS and Benghazi non-scandals (while concern-trolling the White House, though not genuinely caring, about its spying and secrecy) ought to give some people pause. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong about problems with the ACA or NSA; it just means a lot of them have a credibility problem when it comes to assessing the president’s “competence” or lack thereof.

Personally, I’m not without concern about it all. Last week I defended the administration when it came to the ACA web site roll out; this week, I’m finding myself less forgiving of the fact that the president and Democrats continued to use the line “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan” even though they knew how much new ACA regulations would increase churn in the private insurance market.  Jason Linkins and Jonathan Chait unpack what was fair and maybe not so fair about that claim.

Still, the House GOP has perfected its method of paralyzing the country, and the Obama administration, even though it controls only one half of one third of the government (and that minority is controlled by an even smaller, wingnut fringe): Hold endless hearings that reporters are forced to both cover and lazily use as “evidence” that the administration is in big trouble.

It would be nice if the two parties worked together on solutions to these problems, like they did with Medicare Part D’s troubles, but the Republican Party is no longer interested in governing. Instead we have endless hearings and phony grandstanding – and much of the media playing along. Wake me when it’s over.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Affordable Care Act Nsa Spying Obamacare President Obama