NO LONGER servants, and no longer civil.” Winston Churchill’s adage to describe the British bureaucracy could also be applied to the public mood today across the United States. The White House has been on the defensive over the past ten days, seeking to mitigate the fallout from two scandals that will certainly contribute to the public’s cynicism towards its incumbent president.
The Republicans couldn’t have asked for a better backdrop for their message than the Secret Service prostitution scandal or the Las Vegas profligacy of the General Services Administration, an independent agency that claims to envision “a government that works ever better for the American people.” This isn’t just about government, the Republicans will say, it’s the culture of President Barack Obama’s bureaucracy run amok. The “most open and transparent administration in history” is now perilously exposed.
As expected, Democratic commentators and progressive anchors on cable news have lambasted the Republicans for playing politics with these events. This is only out of concern that raising questions of the administration’s trust, decency and honesty may actually stick. Colombia and the GSA are now likely to find their way into the Republican playbook alongside Solyndra, a solar panel company that received copious amounts of government aid only to declare bankruptcy, and the prospect of the attorney general being hit by a contempt of Congress charge for failing to disclose key documents on its controversial operation to supply drug cartels with firearms.
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief re-election strategist, conceded that he would expose such matters if the president were a Republican. The only difference, Axelrod claimed, is “the stories that stick are the ones that are really reflective and emblematic of an administration.” But that’s the point. They might.
Obama’s approval rating is currently 46 per cent, but an overwhelming number of Americans, 67 per cent, believe that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Public cynicism about government in the United States is common, but it becomes a distinct problem for the administration – and Obama’s re-election hopes – when the president’s leadership becomes synonymous with such negligent and sordid affairs. The one faint hope for the administration must be that the public is so used to such scandals they’re more or less immune to stories about their government failing them.
As President George W. Bush discovered after the Hurricane Katrina debacle, even if events are out of your control, people will still point fingers and lay waste to your reputation as a leader. No matter how unfair, the charge will be that government is hopeless because you’re incompetent. It may not have filtered through to the polls yet, but only one man can own these problems by association.
Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt