The Buck Stops Nowhere

During his 1953 farewell address to the nation, President Truman stated, in reference to his oft-quoted aphorism “the buck stops here,” that “the President–whoever he is–has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.” The natural corollary to this is that the President also bears ultimate responsibility for the attendant consequences of those decisions. Such is the universal law of leadership: as the gravity of a decision grows, it necessarily draws greater responsibility towards it. Where one travels, so the other follows close behind.

Fast forward to the present-day Obama administration. As the hysteria surrounding the coolest-president-ever’s election subsided, and the collective thrill running up liberal pundits legs abated, the country began witnessing Obama’s version of buck-stopping. If the President, and by extension the cabinet secretaries under him, were eager to be seen as careful and pragmatic decision-makers, when the occasion has arisen to shoulder the less glamorous charge of responsibility-owning, Obama and Co. haven’t so much stopped bucks but let them sail over their heads.

In the early years of his presidency, revelations arose that the botched ATF operation “Fast and Furious,” instead of yielding high-hanging fruit in the Mexican drug cartels, instead lost track of hundreds of guns stamped “Made In America” used in violent crimes, including the death of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in 2010. Despite the high risk nature of the operation, especially its international nature, Press Secretary Jay Carney stated that Obama wasn’t made aware of it by Attorney General Holder (he “didn’t” know, either), or during classified briefings, or even by a government official. Nope. Through the media. The most powerful man on Earth, in control of the most sophisticated intelligence apparatus anywhere, found out about an international gun-running scheme the same way millions find out what the weather will be. Wonderful.

More recently, news broke about NSA surveillance of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal phone; one among several other European leaders being spied on. This time around, the White House hasn’t said what the President was aware of when, but if the NSA themselves (tread carefully) and Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Diane Feinstein (ditto) are to be trusted, Obama never knew a thing. A national spy agency playing peeping tom against a major foreign ally would seem such a delicate endeavor as to warrant executive-level knowledge, but given the NSA’s dabbling in all things Germany, Spain, France, Google, Yahoo, et al., perhaps the president can be forgiven being unable to keep up. Perhaps. With new allegations coming almost weekly, to paraphrase Million-Mile Club inductee Hillary Clinton, what difference at this point does it make? There will be a new revelation next week, no reason to focus on this one.

The list of cases goes on. IRS unfairly targeting various conservative groups for increased scrutiny? I didn’t know. Improperly tested federal healthcare website about to meander off the cliff? Beats me. Ongoing investigation into CIA director David Petraeus’ emails? Say what? Without clubbing one to death with a comprehensive rundown, the trend becomes clear: this president can’t be bothered to know the in’s and out’s of important policy decisions under his authority.

Some will argue that no president can be expected to maintain first (or, for that matter, second or third-hand) knowledge of a sprawling federal bureaucracy. OK, fine, but isn’t that in itself a glaring knock against such bloat? Can a president lead when the sheer expanse of government precludes any semblance of managerial control?

More to the point, a president who can claim ignorance about various matters of policy beneath his purview can also, therefore, abdicate any ownership of responsibility. A kid who just broke his mother’s favorite vase may be expected to play this card, but leader of the free world? Not so much. It’s a small wonder no one trusts D.C. When, on the rare occasion the media tries holding someone to account, the White House is too busy yelling “squirrel!”

It’s bad enough when a president knows what he doesn’t know. At this point, at least contingencies can be attempted to cover all bases. Know ahead of time that the Obamacare exchange website faces problems? Delay it ahead of its rollout. Not ideal, but workable. But its three steps past troubling when a president doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. If the president can’t be expected to know about even large matters of policy, how many small, though still significant issues linger behind the veil?

A massive and overgrown federal government makes this a legitimate concern, and when the president doesn’t rebuff such ignorance, but actively embraces it to blunt deserved criticisms, righteous public outrage should start flickering to life, however belatedly.

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About Michael Haugen

Michael Haugen is a full-spectrum conservative and recent graduate from Eastern Washington University (BS Biology). His main interests in politics and public policy center around health care, education and tax reform. He'll be returning to EWU in 2014 to complete a Master's degree in Public Administration. Follow him on Twitter: @HaugenTRA

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