CoverStory

The Obama blob

From the Internal Revenue Service to the Justice Department, the President has enlarged and then unleashed a sprawling bureaucracy that has spun out of control

By Mary Kissel

It’s hard to remember now, but try. Once upon a time, a young president stood on the steps of the Capitol and retrod the ground that Al Gore and Jimmy Carter had plowed before him: the siren call for an energetic, effective, trustworthy government.

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works”, Barack Obama told the crowd. “Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.” Four years later, Obama pledged to “harness new ideas and technology to remake our government.” And in July, in San Francisco: “I directed the Cabinet to develop an aggressive management agenda for my second term that delivers a smarter, more innovative, and more accountable government for its citizens.”

Never mind that less than a week before that last pledge, the deputy assistant treasury secretary for tax policy — yep, a deputy assistant — notified the country, via blog post, that the executive branch unilaterally had decided to delay the central part of Obamacare, the president’s crowning legislative achievement, because of “the complexity of the requirements and the need for more time to implement them effectively”. “Complexity” here equals a 2,000-page law that Congress passed to find out what’s in it.

Never mind that, only a few days after that, the Health and Human Services Department waived another big batch of Obamacare requirements, including the requirement to check an applicant’s income, opening up the program to massive fraud, by... burying the news in a 606-page regulation announcement on a Friday afternoon. None of which is constitutional. Or unique.

It’s a story, repeated time and again in the Obama era, and it’s becoming clear why: The White House is sitting atop a Jabba-the-Hutt size blob of its own creation called the federal bureaucracy, and the bureaucratic blob has gone rogue.

Barack Obama blessed the beast. The 111th Congress legislated it, then taxed Americans to pay for it. The Affordable Care Act. Dodd–Frank and its enforcer, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. An Environmental Protection Agency at war against coal and natural gas. Food stamps for the poor and the lower middle classes. Subsidies for green energy and college students. Corporate bailouts. Housing programs for inner city residents, minorities, and foreclosure “victims.” A Federal Reserve that’s kept rates ultra-low for years to prop up the economy. And those are just the biggest headlines.

The presidential ego told the man he could manage it all. Recall the 2004 Democratic convention: “I’m LeBron, baby. I can play on this level. I got some game.” The presidential campaign: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal.” The Lincoln-esque cabinet of rivals in the first term. The 60 Minutes interview at the end of that term, when Steve Croft asked the president to reflect on his record: “I would put our legislative and foreign-policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln — just in terms of what we’ve gotten done in modern history,” he answered. So Obama thinks he’s the fourth most consequential president in modern history? Only the fourth?

But vast self-confidence doesn’t explain faith in super-sized government. That comes from education and professional experience, and a willful ignorance of history. Obama is a far-left ideologue whose doctrines were never challenged. He’s a product of the like-minded academy at Columbia and Harvard, the Chicago political crowd and community organisers. Government must be active. Government must protect the lowly and downtrodden. When a farmer in Atkinson, Illinois, complained at an August 2011 town hall meeting about all the “rules and regulations” raining down on him, what was Obama’s answer? “Contact USDA.” Of course.

The Constitution as a constraint? Nah. Again, from the second inaugural: “Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way.” This is quite an assertion from a constitutional law professor, but it’s not from a man who derided Supreme Court justices — an equal branch of government — for protecting all speech, personal, corporate, and otherwise, in Citizens United. The Supreme Court is a gnat when you’re the smartest guy in the room, if you’ve got game.

Obama installed a cadre of like-minded friends to manage the blob: Justice Department chief Eric Holder, fixer Valerie Jarrett, United Nations ambassador Susan Rice, EPA chief Lisa Jackson, Interior boss Ken Salazar. They shared his views, his life experiences, his goals. Above all, they believe they aren’t confined by the usual constraints of office. They were free to implement a liberal vision unlike any the country had ever seen, and they realised they could target political rivals with the blob.

Just in case that direction wasn’t clear, Obama and his staff wafted smoke signals to guide the bureaucrats through the political fever swamps. The president labelled Tea Party groups “foreign controlled,” “problems for democracy,” even “shadowy,” in speeches. Vice President Joe Biden dubbed the Tea Party “terrorists.” Karl Rove’s name was regularly and darkly invoked. The National Organization for Marriage’s tax reforms were mysteriously leaked. Senior White House official Austan Goolsbee referenced private information about the tax status of Koch Industries at a press briefing.

It was only a matter of time until the ugliness emerged into public view. In May, Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner belly-flopped onto the national stage when she told an American Bar Association conference the agency had “made some mistakes”. Meaning: the IRS slow-walked hundreds of Tea Party and other conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status before the 2012 election. A federal agency with the power to garnish wages, seize bank accounts, or bankrupt Americans with years of litigation hunted political opponents.

There’s no evidence Obama or his closest associates were involved in this targeting. But that doesn’t really matter. The IRS blob got the message. IRS officials in Cincinnati and their bosses in Washington compiled BOLO (Be On the Look Out) lists. Conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation found donor lists mysteriously sprayed out to the public in newspapers. Wealthy donors to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign were audited, repeatedly, after their names were leaked — again, mysteriously, illegally — to the press. The IRS blob was out of control. Try to name another case, on this scale, where the anonymous weight of the state turned against average Americans. Bet you can’t.

Then there’s the Justice Department. The New Black Panthers allegedly intimidated white voters in Philadelphia? Don’t need to prosecute anyone for that. Voter ID laws declared legal by the Supreme Court? Sue the states anyway. Attorney General Holder even tried to criminalise journalism, signing an affidavit in 2010 to seize Fox News reporter James Rosen’s emails, after the television journalist ferreted out news about North Korea that the State Department didn’t want released. When a public outcry ensued, Obama assigned… Holder to investigate Holder. The Justice blob lives.

A little farther down, Tom Perez, Justice’s then–civil rights chief, embarked on a crusade to make discrimination without intent illegal — never mind what the law says. Every CEO he threatened with lawsuits choked up settlement money, some in the multimillion of dollars, to avoid being labelled a racist. None admitted guilt. The Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the theory. Perez engineered a legal quid pro quo to have the case withdrawn. Obama nominated him a few months later for Labor Secretary. Coincidence? The most aggressive blob leaders get rewarded.

Even smaller agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enlarged the blob. Chairwoman Jacqueline Berrien delegated practically all litigation decision to her general counsel. The five-member, bipartisan commission? Moot. Forget it. Move on. They saw three of 122 cases filed last year. The agency is working on criminalising background checks and credit checks, and wants all employees to have the right to work from home. The Chicago branch office launched a war against partnerships because they dislike the idea of millionaires agreeing to mandatory retirement ages. Just because.

Then there’s the ultimate expression of the blob, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Congress has no say over what it does. Its chief can’t be fired unless he commits an outrageous offense. The bureaucrats set their budget, then order the Fed to give them the money. So far the bureau has cozied up to trial lawyers, attacked industries it doesn’t like, and declared it too will sue for discrimination without intent, just like Perez did at Justice. When its first chief stepped down, Obama installed a new one in a recess appointment, while the Senate wasn’t in recess. The CFPB blob couldn’t be without a head, even if it’s a constitutionally illegal appointment.

Step back from all of this, and Obama’s vision of a smarter state has vanished — except in his rhetoric — and only its bigness remains. Oh, and its corruption, and scandals. America’s 44th president is starting to look not unlike its 39th, if not worse. And if in the fullness of time, history judges him that way, you can blame it on the blob.