President Harry Truman made the expression “The Buck Stops Here” famous by placing a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. It was a great statement precisely because it was unqualified. Responsibility stops here — no exceptions, exclusions, or excuses.
With headlines like “Obama Takes Responsibility for AIG Bonus Fiasco”, President Barack Obama has received a lot of positive press for making similar, Trumanesque remarks at a town hall meeting in Costa Mesa, California yesterday. And, if you listen to all but the last eight or ten seconds of his remarks, you could indeed mistakenly think that he is taking a “buck stops here” position. You could come away with an impression of a man rising above political squabbling and partisanship to embrace the accountability that comes with our nation’s highest office. But if you do listen to the last sentence from this clip, everything changes.
When President Obama says “It’s my job to make sure that we fix these messes, even if I don’t make them,” (emphasis added) he transmutes mature acceptance of responsibility into petulance and hypocrisy. The buck stopped with President Truman because that was the nature of the office. The buck stops with President Obama at his discretion. If it’s responsibility he is talking about, it is responsibility without blame, accountability, or any negative consequence whatsoever. On the contrary, it is responsibility that enhances power and prestige.
The remarks are petulant because in the midst of assuming responsibility he feels the need to establish his own innocence. This turns the entire speech into a weirdly Messianic exercise: I, though blameless, will take upon myself these sins which are not mine for the good of the country. Such a statement may have the form of assuming blame, but in function it is little more than arrogant self-aggrandizement. This is why Obama cannot bear to actually use the word “blame” with regards to himself, stating: “So for everybody in Washington who is busy scrambling trying to figure out how to blame somebody else just go ahead and talk to me.” Don‘t blame Obama. Just talk to him.
More than merely petulant, however, the entire speech is an exercise in monumental hypocrisy. One does not have the option of deciding whether or not to assume responsibility for things that really are one’s own fault. You get those for free.
Right now, Democrats and Republicans are engaging in an unconstitutional orgy of mob politics and blame-slinging. The Republicans have abandoned principle in an attempt to convert the public’s anti-AIG sentiment into political opportunity. Democrats, on the other hand, feel the need to join in to disguise the fact that they enabled this problem.
It was Democrat Sen. Chris Dodd (the largest recipient of contributions from AIG executives) in particular who added language to the stimulus bill protecting the AIG bonuses. After initially lying about this, he finally caved and admitted the truth. In an attempt to save his own skin, he ratted out the Obama administration and claimed that they had pressured him into adding the language. It turns out that the request to protect the AIG bonuses came from the Treasury Department, which was afraid that removing the bonuses would cause a talent-flight from AIG at this critical time.
So, the AIG bonuses were protected at the request of Obama’s own administration. He is giving the impression of voluntarily assuming responsibility–kind of–when in fact he shares a very large portion of the blame pie whether he wants to or not.
To the extent that he gets away with it, this is a brilliant political move. Obama gets the benefit of appearing to issue a mea culpa–enhanced credibility and prestige–while simultaneously denying responsibility in fact for the actual mistakes of his own administration. The risk, of course, is that Americans are going to go ahead and assign the blame where it belongs whether Obama volunteers or not.
Robert Wallace has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.