A FEW months ago, I compared President Obama to Richard Nixon: both big spenders, both seeking to disengage abroad, and both personally prickly. I said nothing about Watergate. Now Obama, like Nixon, is enmeshed in scandals that began before his re-election but only grabbed public notice after it.
And what a set of scandals they are. The administration has seized the phone records of Associated Press journalists and editors, and presided over an Internal Revenue Service (IRS, the US equivalent of HM Revenue and Customs) that harassed Tea Party and other conservative groups. It is still trying to bury its bungled response to the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Now it has to deal with reports that senior State Department officials called off numerous internal investigations, including one on the “endemic” use of prostitutes by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s security detail, and another alleging that a US ambassador in Europe “routinely ditched” his security in order to patronise prostitutes in a public park.
Understandably, none of this has done Obama any good politically. He has long been more popular than his policies, but – for the first time – half the public in the latest CNN poll does not believe he is honest and trustworthy.
His standing has fallen badly with younger and independent voters, though no one seems enthusiastic about his intention to arm the Syrian rebels. Support for that has slumped to an all-time low of 20 per cent.
The problem is not just that Americans are sceptical about the rebels. The problem is that the President is his own opposition: if he doesn’t believe in his policy, why should anyone else?
The paradoxes here are delightful, though also a bit painful for American conservatives. If George W Bush’s taxmen had been caught hassling liberal groups while his Justice Department spied on journalists, the Senate would at least be murmuring about impeachment. If Bashir Assad had gassed his people when Bush was in office, the left would be blaming Bush’s amoral realism. In Bush’s day, the Left celebrated leakers as heroes. Today, liberal senators call them traitors, even though the only thing that has changed is the party that holds the White House.
The reason why the IRS story, in particular, has done so much damage to Obama is not, sadly, that it is new. The IRS has been abused for political purposes by presidents since Franklin Roosevelt. It is damaging because it is what the American statesman John Hay called a “concise impropriety.”
The administrative and bureaucratic state affects, guides, shapes, controls, and watches us in a thousand different ways, and we seem to be basically fine with that. We shouldn’t be, but we are. Everything around you is regulated by someone, and usually by lots of someones.
But every once in a while, the bureaucratic hand becomes a little too obvious. That rarely stops the process for long: every year, we make new laws by the gross and new rules by the truckload, always with the best of intentions. The liberals who condemn the government for surveilling the internet today will turn around and demand that the government enforce “net neutrality” on it tomorrow.
It was Richard Nixon’s successor, the underappreciated Gerald Ford, who put it best: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” That quote is often wrongly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, who knew a lot about the dangers of tyranny but had no experience with today’s big government.
Most second-term administrations in the US are unsuccessful, sometimes shockingly so. This may be the result of arrogance, bad luck, or simply the inevitable accumulation of failure. The bigger government gets, after all, the more there is to go wrong.
What is disconcerting about Obama’s scandals is that the IRS appears to have put more energy into chastening the President’s domestic opponents than the administration has displayed in chasing the murderers of our diplomats abroad. Indeed, we’ve become unwilling even to name radical Islamists as our enemies.
The Benghazi scandal, after all, grew because this administration did not want to admit that Islamist terrorists attacked our consulate. But the less willing we are to acknowledge who is trying to kill us, the more we are going to resort to dragnet-style security that looks askance at everyone.
We want safety, and not just from terrorists, which is reasonable. We want it everywhere. The vast bureaucracies of the modern world, whether they are intelligence agencies or benefit payers, are all about trying to prevent unpleasantness. It is a strange kind of mind that finds this troubling when it comes to our security, but still welcomes the advance of the state everywhere else.
-Ted Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations at the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom, based at the Heritage Foundation, Washington.
First appeared in the Yorkshire Post