Presidential ethics are now situational. Obama is calling for a shield law to protect reporters from the sort of harassment that his attorney general, Eric Holder, and the FBI practiced against Fox News and the Associated Press. Through such rhetoric, he remains a staunch champion of the First Amendment — even though he now has the ability to peek into the private phone records of millions of Americans.
The president is outraged that the IRS went after those deemed politically suspicious. So he sacked the acting head of the IRS, Steven Miller, who was scheduled to step down soon anyway. The administration remains opposed to any partisanship of the sort that might deny tax-exempt status to the Barack H. Obama Foundation, founded by the president’s half-brother Malik, but would indefinitely delay almost all the applications from those suspected of tea-party sympathies. Consequently, Lois Lerner granted the former’s request in 30 days, but took the Fifth Amendment when asked the reasons for obstructing the applications of the latter.
These ethical gymnastics were not entirely unforeseeable. Obama ran as a reform candidate for the Senate in 2004, while his campaign was most likely involved in the leaking of the sealed divorce records of both his primary- and general-election opponents. As a senator, he characterized recess appointments as tainted, only as president to make just such appointments — some of which later were declared unconstitutional in a unanimous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Senator Obama employed filibusters to block judicial appointments; President Obama now condemns as bad-faith partisans any who might follow his own former custom. He championed public campaign financing before he became the first general-election presidential candidate since the program was enacted to opt out of it. President Obama has railed against any who would vote against raising the debt ceiling as putting partisanship ahead of the national interest — which, as senator, he himself had done. He ran in 2008 on the excesses of the Bush administration’s War on Terror, and then as president embraced or even expanded almost all of the very programs he had so adroitly demagogued in his campaign.
One of the legacies of the Obama administration is presidential ethics as an entirely relative, abstract concept. Obama’s morality is to be judged by his professed aims, not his actual means of achieving them, thereby turning classical Aristotelian ethics on its head: Dreaming of doing the right thing becomes more important than actually doing it while awake. Apparently reporters who had their phones monitored are to be impressed that Obama is advocating a shield law to protect them from any future president not so ethical as Obama.
The problem, however, is not just that Obama’s declarations of moral intent are deemed more important than his concrete behavior, but also that his moral pieties serve as a psychological mechanism that offers exemption for his unethical conduct. Obama repeatedly declared that citing the bin Laden raid for partisan purposes would be “spiking the ball” of the worst sort — and thereby was freed to do just that without any guilt over his own hypocrisy, much less a worry that there was something untoward in using a national-security operation for campaign advantage.
The president deplores leaks as injurious to national security. Indeed, Attorney General Holder declares that the AP reporters endangered national security to a degree without precedent in modern memory. However, they did not do so as flagrantly as the administration itself, which leaked selected documents of the bin Laden trove to pet reporters, leaked the details of the Stuxnet cyber war against Iran, leaked information surrounding the drone targeting, and leaked details about the Yemeni double agent. The common theme was that such unlawful disclosures would let the voters know that their commander-in-chief was far more effective than they otherwise might have thought.
In contrast, the sin of the AP reporters was not leaking per se, but in some cases their freelancing attempts to beat the administration’s preplanned timing of its own leaks, and in others leaking things that the administration did not find particularly helpful to its reelection efforts. But again, Obama bought exemption for his own leaks by first citing the dangers that the AP leaks posed. Only by berating Wall Street “fat cats” and “corporate-jet owners” can one justify being the largest recipient of Goldman Sachs campaign cash in history. If you talk of kicking BP’s “ass,” then having taken more of its money than any other candidate becomes palatable.
Under situational ethics, the new transparency means that Obama can square the circle of promoting Susan Rice by doing so to a position that does not require Senate confirmation. Will Samantha Power, Obama’s nominee as ambassador to the U.N., receive the sort of congressional reception that once awaited John Bolton? Cf. Senator Obama on that recess appointment: “To some degree, he’s damaged goods. Not in the history of United Nations representatives have we ever had a recess appointment, somebody who couldn’t get through a nomination in the Senate. And I think that that means that we will have less credibility and ironically be less equipped to reform the United Nations in the way that it needs to be reformed.” Obama once noted that John Bolton had “a lot of ideological baggage,” presumably in a way that Samantha Power does not.