Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Obama's Crisis of Competence

ARCHIVES
Evan Vucci/AP

President Obama returned last night from a weeklong trip to Africa, seeking to position himself as part of ailing Nelson Mandela's legacy and generating strategic photo-ops. On the other side of the continent, Egypt is awash in revolution, with hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square railing against the American-backed president, with some chanting slogans against the American passivity in the face of crisis. TheWashington Post editorialized Tuesday: "For months, as the Morsi government has taken steps to consolidate power, quash critics and marginalize independent civil society groups, President Obama and his top aides have been largely silent in public. No effort was made to use the leverage of U.S. aid to compel a change of policy."

While the president was in Africa, Secretary of State John Kerry spent time in Israel, using valuable political capital trying to jump-start peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, at a time when few serious foreign policy analysts believe it has any chance of success -- beyond garnering favorable press for trying. (The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg calls Kerry's a "delusion of the foreign policy elite" in his column today.) This, while the administration appears utterly feckless in neighboring Syria, where civil war worsens, chemical-weapons-wielding dictator Bashar al-Assad strengthens his hold on power, and American influence dwindles. "The military situation in Syria is slipping away as the president ponders," Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl wrotelast week.

And on the domestic front, Obama was comfortably traveling on Air Force One when a Treasury Department functionary announced late Tuesday it would be delaying the mandate that businesses provide health care for their employee -- a crucial component in the health care law that is shaping up as the president's main legacy. Rather than give a speech explaining the delay, and informing the public about how this could affect their health care options, the administration dropped the bombshell news right before the July Fourth holiday weekend.

The administration is facing a crisis of competence. At a time when trust in government is already at an all-time low, the events of this past week illustrate the limits of this president's power. The White House seems more comfortable stage-managing the news than dealing with the uncomfortable crises that inevitably crop up. (If there's anything to learn from the Benghazi crisis, it was the administration's attentiveness to detail in how to avoid blame in the aftermath of the crisis but a lack of focus in how to react as the crisis was occurring.)

The other worrying sign, is that politics is getting in the way of smart policymaking. Wary of the last war in the Middle East, Americans don't want the United States to intervene in Syria. The White House, heeding the polls, gladly obliged, even figuring out ways to forestall proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people -- the red line that the president famously set. Obama doesn't want to say anything to take sides between the Egyptian president he backed and the growing throngs of protesters, and then take ownership in a crisis that's showing no signs of abating. Politically speaking, it's a lose-lose situation.

On health care, with the 2014 midterms approaching and control of the Senate in play, the administration decided to buy time by delaying the employer mandate until after the elections. Former HHS spokesman Nick Papas said the delay was "about minimizing paperwork, not politics." But it's awfully politically convenient to delay implementation of a law that's been growing more unpopular and whose implementation is shaping up to be a "train wreck," in the words of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat.

Obama's second-term legacy is shaping up to be more about avoiding crises than accomplishing big things. Salvage the core of a health care law, avoid worst-case scenarios in Egypt and Syria, and don't get in the way of his party's efforts to win Republican support for a landmark immigration reform plan. It's a far cry from the idealism of his second inaugural. But at this point, the president needs to simply show that he's paying attention to the fires burning around him.

Josh Kraushaar

Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal, and pens the weekly "Against the Grain" column.

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.