Over the last several months, the American public has had a hard and clear look at the executive talent inside the White House, and has begun to despair for real leadership and competence.
When leadership fails, people stop following. It appears in the sixth year of the Barack Obama presidency, that moment has arrived.
CNN’s most recent poll provided a clear indicator of this dynamic in the wake of two major controversies involving military issues. The results showed that Obama did not gain a majority of support for any of twelve issues surveyed from the respondents. In fact, in ten of the twelve issues, majorities disapproved of the President’s performance, and only on one – the environment, usually an overwhelming Democratic strength – did his approval exceed his disapproval, and only barely at 49/45. On the economy and health care, which the poll identified as the top two priorities of its respondents, Obama’s approval ratings sank to 38/61 and 36/63, respectively.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza assigns the change in polling to a crisis of leadership and competence in the White House. “The core of Obama’s appeal,” wrote Cillizza about the 2008 election “was the idea that he would restore competence back to the White House after President George W. Bush's eight years…. Obama openly embraced the idea that he was the anti-Bush on nothing much more than his commitment to putting the best people in the right places within his administration.”
Now, the series of disastrous scandals and unmistakable incompetence have completely eroded confidence in his leadership, Cillizza argues, pointing to a Pew poll series in which his perceived executive competence went from 70/15 in February 2009 to 43/51 in December 2013.
1) Obamacare. That final result came after the inexplicable failure of the White House to take much of an interest in the rollout of its central domestic-policy project – Obamacare. By December, the Healthcare.gov exchange that the Department of Health and Human Services had 42 months and upward of $400 million to build turned out to be a complete flop.
Millions of people who had been promised they could keep existing plans found their insurance canceled, and millions more who managed to enroll in a plan found that they couldn’t keep their doctor, as Obama had promised. In the face of these disasters, Obama scowled at the cameras, proclaimed himself madder than anyone, and … left the people in place who’d failed.
When the sheer weight of the mandate and its penalties convinced eight million Americans to finally sign-up through the still-buggy website by the twice-extended deadline, Obama claimed victory. Just this week, though, we discovered that two million Medicaid enrollees or more may not have been processed correctly in that still-faulty system, and may not have coverage after all.
Who could have guessed that leaving the same incompetents to run the system they couldn’t produce correctly in the first place would create more problems? Pretty much anyone with any actual executive or managerial experience, actually.
2) Department of Veterans Affairs. The lack of responsiveness at the VA was such an issue that Obama campaigned on it in 2008. He demanded a huge increase in funding from Congress, and the VA annual budget went up 78 percent during his presidency, with $235 billion more in funding during the last five-plus years over the FY2008 baseline.
However, the last time Obama sat down with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki prior to this spring had been in July 2012. It took whistleblowers telling the media that wait lists had been falsified at VA facilities and that dozens of veterans in Phoenix had died while being denied medical attention to shake the tree.
A subsequent internal audit showed that 64 percent of all VA facilities had instances of wait-list fraud, and that 13 percent of all schedulers had received training in how to commit it. Obama scowled at the cameras twice in this scandal, pronounced himself once again madder than anyone, and only finally accepted the resignation from Shinseki just before the second presser.
3) National Security. This week, we have another serious crisis, this time in national security, and the incompetence reached new heights. President Obama traded five high-ranking Taliban detainees at Guantanamo Bay for a soldier held captive for almost five years in Afghanistan. Two of the men released are wanted by the United Nations for war crimes, and one was a close associate of Osama bin Laden himself. Obama insisted he had confidence that the men posed no risk to American security while celebrating the return of an American service member.
Then the story began to fall apart. First, the White House mischaracterized the capture of Bowe Bergdahl as “on the battlefield” after serving “with honor and distinction.” The Pentagon had concluded in 2010 that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had in fact deserted his post, leaving behind a note to that effect and that at the least Bergdahl had wandered into Taliban territory on purpose.
Soldiers who served with Bowe Bergdahl erupted in outrage, accusing him of desertion and the Pentagon of actively suppressing the truth. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf responded to these first-person reports by soldiers who had served at the post Bergdahl abandoned by suggesting that they weren’t credible witnesses, while other White House insiders told NBC’s Chuck Todd that these soldiers were conducting a “swift boat” smear.”
Nor was that the only White House offense. A law passed with Obama’s signature requires 30-day notice before transferring any detainee out of Guantanamo Bay, let alone the highest-risk Taliban officials Obama released. The White House claimed there was no time to notify Congress before getting the deal done.
Yet the White House managed to put Bowe Bergdahl’s parents next to Obama for the Saturday announcement. They also insisted that the administration had ongoing consultations on the question of trading the five Taliban for Bergdahl. But the two chairs of the intelligence committees – Rep. Mike Rodgers, a Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat – both said the last such consultation took place in 2011, and the overwhelming and bipartisan consensus opposed such a deal.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) later told Fox News that the file on Bergdahl given to the Senate Intelligence Committee when deliberating on this question never included Bergdahl’s note nor the testimony of other soldiers about the nature of his disappearance.
Obama asked Americans to accept his own assurances that the five released detainees would pose no threat to the United States. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel joined him in making those assurances and said that the cases had been reviewed thoroughly. The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake and Time Magazine separately reported, however, that the review had been rushed through to get the conclusion desired by the White House. Lake’s sources in the defense and intelligence communities called this “forcing the consensus,” while Time Magazine’s source made it even clearer. “There never was the conversation,” the official reported. “This was out of the norm.”
While Hagel backed Obama’s story, others at the Pentagon strongly disagreed. Fox reporter Jim Angle reported that one source in the military said, “Many at the Pentagon advised the President not to make the trade.” Senior officials at the Department of Defense had warned the White House that releasing these five detainees would be “like handing over five 4-star generals of the Taliban.” Releasing them now, rather than at the end of US participation in Afghanistan that Obama plans for 2016, puts more than 32,000 Americans in Afghanistan at risk of these high-ranking Taliban commanders’ re-entry into the war.
Nothing about Obama’s performance in these scandals and debacles should give anyone confidence in his assurances -- not of security, not of competence, not even of being madder than anyone. The polling numbers suggest that Americans have finally reached a point where the incompetence and dishonesty are just too obvious to ignore any longer.
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