Where the Buck Stops, Some See a Bystander
WASHINGTON — President Obama finds himself under fire on two disparate fronts these days, both for the botched rollout of his signature health care program and for the secret spying on allied heads of state. In both instances, his explanation roughly boils down to this: I didn’t know.
As a practical matter, no president can be aware of everything going on in the sprawling government he theoretically manages. But as a matter of politics, Mr. Obama’s plea of ignorance may do less to deflect blame than to prompt new questions about just how much in charge he really is.
In recent days, the president’s health and human services secretary said that despite internal concerns and a failed test run Mr. Obama was not told about serious problems with the new program’s website until it was rolled out this month. Other officials said the president was not aware that the National Security Agency was tapping the phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and other friendly leaders until this summer, although intelligence officials said Tuesday that others in the White House had known.
Opposition lawmakers and pundits have seized on the White House explanations to accuse Mr. Obama of being a “bystander president,” as the Republican National Committee put it. Even some Democrats are scratching their heads at the seeming detachment from significant matters. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” ran a montage of clips showing Mr. Obama or his aides disclaiming presidential knowledge of various issues as well as a graphic titled “Implausible Deniability.”
“It seems to me there’s a pattern here — with any bad news coming out of the administration, the excuse is the president just didn’t know about it,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois.
“There’s a point at which the I-didn’t-know excuse really violates the idea of the buck stops here,” he added. “We want to have a feeling that the president ultimately takes responsibility. The American people want to know they have a president who’s in control and in charge.”