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The Surprised and Angry President

From domestic politics to foreign policy, Obama and his aides frequently appear overtaken or overwhelmed by events.

by James Oliphant, White House Correspondent    •    National Journal 

Obama 102President Obama is shocked, we are told. He’s “visibly angry” over the government’s response to the domestic Ebola threat.

A report in The New York Times over the weekend portrayed the president as a frustrated chief executive, directing federal officials to be more “hands on” and to be more on top of events rather than reacting to them.

If this feels familiar, it’s because that has been the go-to White House play for some time when bad news arrives—always unexpectedly—as Obama’s presidency seems overwhelmed by the sense that things aren’t quite under control either within the administration or beyond it, in places overseas such as Iraq and Ukraine.

The president and his staff have seemed flat-footed, reactive, surprised, and at the mercy of outside events rather than in command of them. That has contributed to an abject feeling of powerlessness emanating from the West Wing—one augmented by the administration’s own insistence at times that its reach is limited, that there was little it could to do to ease this summer’s border crisis, or push Vladimir Putin back into Russia, or protect towns under threat from Islamic State forces.

So Obama was “madder than hell” when he learned about the patient backlogs at the Veterans Administration, aides said. He was angry when he was told about the problems with the federal health care website. He was mad when he found out that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting nonprofit political-advocacy groups. [Editor’s Note: Obama later labeled the very IRS scandal that had once made him “mad,” a “phony scandal” when it suited him to do so. Thus, he may also have claimed he was angry when it was politically expedient to do so. This may explain the low trust polling numbers that he has received of late.]

As with the Ebola crisis, where the president is now fine-tuning and Scotch-guarding his approach, reports of Obama’s dissatisfaction then were twinned with efforts toward recalibration. VA Secretary Erik Shinseki was let go. IRS official Lois Lerner left before she could be fired. Just as Ron Klain was recruited last week to help tighten up the administration’s Ebola plan, Jeff Zients was brought in to fix the health care site. Sometimes the shift has been a bit dizzying. It was a matter of weeks ago when Obama was confident that the right “infrastructure” was in place to combat Ebola and a so-called “czar” wasn’t necessary.

One could argue that Obama, like many presidents before him (think George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina), has been let down by the sprawling and largely unmanageable federal bureaucracy. After all, we don’t expect our presidents to be omniscient or omnipresent. But sometimes Obama’s surprises have been of his own making—dating back to the first days of his presidency.

Obama’s first surprise came in January 2009, when media reports had the White House stunned that its emergency economic stimulus plan failed to capture any GOP votes in the House—despite its intense lobbying efforts. But perhaps aides shouldn’t have been blindsided. Even then, Republicans were complaining that they had been cut out of the legislative process. The wrangling over the stimulus was the first of many instances—health care reform being another—in which Obama and his aides expected Hill Republicans to come to the table and negotiate in good faith. To the consternation of liberal activists, it took years for the White House to realize they never would.

In October 2012, for example, in his final debate with Mitt Romney, Obama told the nationwide audience that the sequester cuts scheduled for the end of the year “will not happen.” The White House believed that Republicans would work to avoid deep cuts to the military budget. Aides also thought dark threats about the domestic effects of the sequester would build public pressure against them. Surprise: The cuts went through the following spring. Republicans never caved, and the public barely noticed them.

The spring of 2013 was also when the IRS scandal broke—and surprised the president. “I learned about it from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this,” Obama said in May.

That summer, after Obama talked tough about the need to launch a strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the White House expected quick congressional approval for its action. Surprise: There was tepid support on both sides of the aisle. Then later that year, rebels backed by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, seized Crimea from Ukraine, seemingly catching the U.S. off guard. “I think it’s very clear that this whole operation took this administration and the intelligence community by surprise,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told The Daily Beast then.

In the fall, the White House was jolted by the underperforming federal health care exchange, just weeks after Obama said it would work smoothly and efficiency. After that was clearly not the case and then some, the president told CBS News’ Major Garrett: “On the website, I was not informed directly that the website would not be working as—the way it was supposed to. Had I been informed, I wouldn’t be going out saying, ‘Boy this is going to be great.'”

Spring of this year was dominated by the VA scandal. In May, the White House first said that Obama had learned of it from news reports, but later amended that to say that the president had been aware of troubles at the VA while as a candidate. In June, the White House was knocked on its heels by the political outrage over its decision to swap five Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. “The White House has been surprised by how much attention has remained on questions about Bergdahl,” Politico reported.

Another shock to the system came this spring, as the forces of what was then called ISIL began claiming territory in the borderlands in Syria and Iraq with almost no opposition. “Everybody was surprised to see the rapid advance that ISIL was able to make from Syria across to the Iraqi border, and how they were able to take over such large swaths of territory in Iraq did come as a surprise,” Josh Earnest, Obama’s press secretary, told reporters last month.

Obama’s critics have charged for years that the White House has known more than it has let on about a host of issues ranging from the health care exchange’s woes to the monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone to the advance of Islamic State, and that the president has claimed ignorance as a means to evade accountability. But even if you take the administration at its word, it raises questions as to whether Obama should have done more from a management perspective in both those situations and others, such as the current Ebola scare, to ward off trouble.

No doubt the president found out at the same time as most of the public last week to hear that a nurse who had treated an Ebola patient in Texas was allowed to board a commercial flight while showing early onset of symptoms of the virus. And no doubt it was a surprise. For the sake of his presidency, he should hope that there won’t be many more.