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Obama’s Inverted Grief Process
Somehow, his reaction to scandals starts with acceptance and ends with denial.

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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If, rather than becoming president of the United States, Barack Obama had tried his hand at psychiatry and laid out for a grateful world the sequencing of human grief, one suspects our understanding of the area would be rather different. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, whose seminal work informs our best comprehension of the topic, holds that human beings go through five stages of grieving: First, there is denial; followed by anger; next, a period of bargaining; then some depression; and, finally, acceptance.

For Barack Obama, it seems, the process is somewhat inverted. When a scandal breaks in the newspapers, the president starts with acceptance, which he mixes in with a little anger — an emotion he invariably explains “no one” is feeling more than he is. Then his upset subsides into bargaining — that all-purpose word “if” begins this step, followed by the promise to get to the bottom of a concern that he had previously conceded was real. And, eventually, he ends up flat-out denying that there was ever a problem in the first instance. This process takes a while, allowing whatever meager investigations have been launched to move along at a snail’s pace, thereby ensuring that enough time will have passed for the news cycle to have moved on and for his flacks to be able to berate his critics for living in the past. (“Dude, that was like two years ago,” and all that.)

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Such a pattern has now been applied to scandals involving the IRS, the NSA, the Department of Justice, and Benghazi. But not the Veterans Administration. Why? Well, in part because veterans are deservedly popular among the public at large, and in part because, for once, Democrats in Congress have done their job. In Politico today, Edward-Isaac Dovere and Carrie Budoff Brown note that the president “tried to handle the Veterans Affairs scandal like he had all the others” but “couldn’t” because “Democrats wouldn’t let him.” It’s about time! Even if we were to enjoy a transparent and accountable executive branch, the Madisonian system of government would work properly only if the members of Congress preferred to preserve their branch’s prerogatives than to puff up their own party. This has not been the case. For far too long now, the Obama administration has been cheered on by its friends as it has taken powers that it does not possess and ducked the blame whenever things have gone wrong. That the rug was finally pulled from under the scheme is happy news indeed.

Nowhere has the administration’s tendency to whitewash its mistakes been more evident than in its attitude toward the investigation of wrongdoing and incompetence. Ostensibly, Obama likes the executive branch to investigate itself because anything else would inevitably invite “politicization.” One might ask what exactly this means. Are we honestly to believe that the political work of the political appointees of a politically chosen president of the United States is . . . apolitical? And are we to presume that it is less sensible to allow politicians to investigate those they oppose than to investigate those they like? One suspects not.

Nevertheless, for as long as he has been allowed to get away with it, our 44th president has successfully managed to sell the idea that neither his leadership nor his expansive vision of government is to blame for his many shortcomings, and rather that the American system of government is incapable of fostering and exporting his talent. We have heard, not only from the White House but from its acolytes on the progressive left, that America is set up badly; that the government is too big for one man; that the bureaucracy is hard to handle; and that the president’s opponents have exhibited a unique willingness to oppose him — all of which criticisms have been apparently leveled without their advocates wondering if they aren’t making their opponents’ case for them.

It is no surprise that, the day before he resigned, the VA’s General Shinseki said simultaneously that the problems at the Veterans Administration were national and systemic but that the best way to address them was to fire officials in the places that have made the news. That, after all, is the Obama way. If something goes wrong, it’s always the fault of a low-level official in a faraway town; of recalcitrant Republican legislators; or, more often than not, of unhinged ire based upon “phony” claims. Explaining to Chris Matthews what went wrong with the rollout of his health-care legislation, Obama suggested that the trouble was “not so much my personal management style or particular issues around White House organization” but that “we have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly.” “Frankly,” the president continued, “there are a lot of members of Congress who are chairmen of a particular committee. And they don’t want necessarily consolidations where they would lose jurisdiction over certain aspects of certain policies.”

Even when he is attempting to apologize, Obama cannot help talking out of both sides of his mouth. “This is my administration,” he informed the press corps Friday. “I always take responsibility for whatever happens.” Then he immediately blamed others for what happened, noting acidly that the problem with the VA “predates my presidency.” One wonders at what point Obama expects to be judged. He expressly ran on a promise to fix the VA. He is now in the sixth year of his presidency. When might we look for the results?

The simple answer, it seems, is never. As he has from the very beginning, the president continues to conduct himself like a man standing outside the gates. Certainly, all politicians will run from criticism. But the best of our leaders at least know that they are our leaders. Whatever the demerits of George W. Bush’s announcing that he was “the decider,” at least the man understood that, ultimately, he was in charge. Barack Obama, by contrast, does not seem to have noticed, preferring instead to point to the failures of Washington, D.C., from a distance, as if he were a disinterested spectator on the plains of Nebraska. Today, he was forced to own up to his power. It won’t last, I suspect — there’s always that fifth stage.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.



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