Saturday, May 18, 2013 | 2:01 a.m.
Leaving aside the seriousness of lawlessness, and the corruption of our civic culture by the professionally pious, this past week has been amusing. There was the spectacle of advocates of an ever-larger regulatory government expressing shock about such government’s large capacity for misbehavior. And, entertainingly, the answer to the question “Will Barack Obama’s scandals derail his second-term agenda?” was a question: What agenda?
The scandals are interlocking and overlapping in ways that drain his authority. Everything he advocates requires Americans to lavish on government something his administration, and big government generally, undermines: trust.
Liberalism’s agenda has been constant since long before liberals, having given their name a bad name, stopped calling themselves liberals and resumed calling themselves progressives, which they will call themselves until they finish giving that name a bad name. The agenda always is: Concentrate more power in Washington, more Washington power in the executive branch and more executive power in agencies run by experts. Then trust the experts to be disinterested and prudent with their myriad intrusions into, and minute regulations of, Americans’ lives. Obama’s presidency may yet be, on balance, a net plus for the public good if it shatters Americans’ trust in the regulatory state’s motives.
Now, regarding Obama’s second-term agenda. His re-election theme — re-elect me because I am not Mitt Romney — yielded a meager mandate, and he used tactics that are now draining the legitimacy an election is supposed to confer.
One tactic was to misrepresent the Benghazi attack, lest it undermine his narrative about taming terrorism. Does anyone think the administration’s purpose in manufacturing 12 iterations of the talking points was to make them more accurate?
Another tactic was using the “federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” The words are from a 1971 memo by the then-White House counsel, John Dean, whose spirit still resides where he worked before he went to prison. Congress may contain some Democrats who owed their 2012 election to the IRS’ suppression of conservative political advocacy.
Obama’s supposed “trifecta” of scandals — Benghazi, the IRS and the seizure of Associated Press phone records — neglects some. A fourth scandal is power being wielded by executive branch officials (at the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) illegally installed in office by presidential recess appointments made when the Senate was not in recess.
A fifth might be Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius soliciting, from corporations in industries HHS regulates, funds to replace some that Congress refused to appropriate. The money is to be spent by nonprofit — which does not mean nonpolitical — entities. The funds are to educate Americans about, which might mean (consider the administration’s Benghazi and IRS behaviors) propagandize in favor of, Obamacare and to enroll people in its provisions. The experienced (former governor, former secretary of education, 10 years in the Senate) and temperate Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., compares this to the Iran-contra scandal, wherein the Reagan administration raised private funds to do what Congress had refused to do — finance the insurgency against Nicaragua’s government.
Obama’s incredibly shrinking presidency is a reminder that politics is a transactional business, trust is the currency of the transactions, and the currency has been debased. For example:
Obama says: Trust me, I do not advocate universal preschool simply to swell the ranks of unionized, dues-paying, Democrat-funding teachers. Trust me, I know something not known by the social scientists who say the benefits of such preschool are small and evanescent.
Obama says: Trust me, the science of global warming is settled. And trust me that although my plans to combat global warming, whenever the inexplicable 16-year pause of it ends, would vastly expand government’s regulatory powers, as chief executive I guarantee that these powers will be used justly.
Obama says: Trust me, although I am head of the executive branch, I am not responsible for the IRS portion of this branch.
Obama says: Trust me, my desire to overturn a Supreme Court opinion (Citizens United) that expanded First Amendment protection of political speech, and my desire to “seriously consider” amending the First Amendment to expand the government’s power to regulate the quantity, content and timing of political advocacy, should be untainted by what the IRS did to suppress advocacy by my opponents.
Because Obama’s agenda involves enlarging government’s role in allocating wealth and opportunity, the agenda now depends on convincing Americans to trust him, not their lying eyes. In the fourth month of his second term, it is already too late for that.
George Will is a columnist for the Washington Post.