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.
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.
Power once wrote of the Bush administration that “We need a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States. This would entail restoring FOIA to its pre-Bush stature, opening the files, and acknowledging the force of a mantra we have spent the last decade promoting in Guatemala, South Africa, and Yugoslavia: A country has to look back before it can move forward. Instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors.” If such absolute standards of transparency and public apologies for untruth applied across the board, only the “doctrine of the mea culpa” would put to rest doubts over whether partisan concerns governed the fates of those trapped in Benghazi and the postmortem accounts of their tragic ends.
The new ethical transparency means that there is no conflict of interest when Susan Rice appears on ABC news programs that her husband once produced. Nor should anyone worry that the brother of one of the president’s closest advisers heads CBS News, or that the president of ABC News has a sister in a high position in the Obama administration, or that the wife of press secretary Jay Carney is the national correspondent of ABC’s Good Morning America. Under the new ethics, to point out any such connection is at best illiberal, and perhaps motivated by darker impulses; but to discuss with your spouse or sibling how you will cover his or her televised performance is a necessary means to an exalted ethical end.
What is the short-term effect of such postmodern ethical behavior? Not much. The media will determine publicly that the Benghazi, IRS, AP, and Fox scandals, to the extent that they remain in the public view much longer as scandals, were the products of overzealous subordinates, while privately concluding that too much public attention to them might aid the illiberal agenda of conservative Republicans. Thus the better — indeed, the more moral — course is to let the scandals go the way of Fast and Furious and Solyndra.
I think their reasoning, to the degree it is ever consciously examined, goes something like the following: Is pursuing a rogue IRS or a John Mitchell–like attorney general really worth wounding the second term of a reelected liberal president? Do we really need another Watergate or Iran-Contra, when the possible outcome this time around is not stopping the regressive efforts of a Richard Nixon or a Ronald Reagan, but rather endangering the political survival of the first black president, and the first northern liberal to be elected president since John Kennedy a half-century earlier — and, with him, a long-overdue progressive agenda that so far has given us needed higher taxes, socialized medicine, more entitlements, and liberal social initiatives?
What about the long-term consequences? To paraphrase Thucydides on the stasis at Corcyra, as a practical matter, it is always unwise when in power to destroy the ethical safety net that you may need when you are out of power. But here too Obama is not worried. He assumes that if Congress and the White House return to Republican control, the media will revert to their traditional watchdog role, resuscitated and on the scent once more of a lack of transparency, the revolving door, efforts to stifle the press, Guantanamo and drones, lobbyists in government, and the politicization of the federal government. Some day soon perhaps, once-bad filibusters and recess appointments will again turn bad. Lying attorney generals will again earn special prosecutors. Tapped reporters will again become courageous, not careerist opportunists. Whistleblowers will once more be lauded for speaking truth to power rather than be derided as reactionary snitches.
The lesson is not necessarily that Republicans are inherently more ethical than Democrats — although their aims are not so utopian — and thus more likely to adhere to a fixed notion of morality that transcends situational ethics. Rather, in the present climate, conservative politicians find it more difficult to get away with hypocrisies and opportunistic ethics, given their traditional adversarial relationship with the mainstream media.
Obama is not inherently more amoral than his predecessors, only more exempt from charges of amorality. He appreciates that this latitude has never been extended to any other president in modern memory. The result is that there is no longer such a thing as presidential ethics.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals is just out from Bloomsbury Books.