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First Thoughts: Scandal or bureaucratic incompetency?

What’s worse for the Obama White House: For the controversies to be full-scale scandals that go all the way to the top?... Or for them to be the result of bureaucratic incompetence?... The latest IRS developments… On Obama’s Morehouse speech… Two unions now oppose the Senate immigration bill… Getting the Hillary ’08 band back together -- or not… And Virginia, meet E.W. Jackson.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President Barack Obama crosses the South Lawn as he returns from travel to Atlanta via Marine One, at the White House, May 19, 2013.

*** Scandal or bureaucratic incompetency? Here’s a question for the Obama White House to ponder: What’s worse, for all the controversies -- especially the IRS targeting conservative-sounding groups -- to be a full-fledged scandal that goes all the way to the top? Or for them to be the result of bureaucratic incompetence? You could make an argument that the latter outcome could be just as damaging to the president, because it raises doubts about his competency and the public’s trust in government. As Time’s Joe Klein wrote last week, “It can, and will, be argued that the president is to blame for lousy management… Some in the Administration are saying that civil-service rules prevent Obama from firing the midlevel bozos. But what about the higher-ups? Why haven't the Democrats proposed a full-scale review of civil-service laws…? Such laws certainly hinder effective governance, which the Democrats are supposedly selling.” Of course, there are plenty of examples where you can argue that government has worked. Think of the rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. Or the response to the Boston bombings. But government working in a crisis vs. government working every day are two different issues. And it’s never a good story when a White House has to respond to examples when the government ISN’T working for the American people.

*** Competency questions pile up: After all, the Democrats are the party of government, and Obama got elected, in part, by pushing competency (at least compared with the previous administration). The White House should hope its problems are political in nature, because that’s something they’ve proven adept at dealing with. But the competency questions for this administration are piling up: The Veteran’s Administration is a mess; their explanation on Benghazi is about the lack of communication and security procedures; and the IRS explanation is overworked and mistake-prone bureaucrats in Cincinnati. Right now, the White House is benefitting from those congressional Republicans who are desperately searching for “scandal.” What the White House should fear more is if Republicans use their “government is too big” argument to go to core of competency. 

*** The latest IRS developments: It’s worth noting that today’s “news” about the White House counsel being informed of the IRS audit was first confirmed at a Jay Carney press briefing last week. A senior administration also confirms to NBC News that White House Counsel Kathy Ruemmler did NOT inform the president. What’s not clear is if she gave a heads up to the rest of the senior staff. And what’s also not clear is how much detail Ruemmler was offered about the audit itself. Meanwhile, the Sunday New York Times offered a lengthy piece tracing what went wrong in that Cincinnati IRS office. “While there are still many gaps in the story of how the I.R.S. scandal happened, interviews with current and former employees and with lawyers who dealt with them, along with a review of I.R.S. documents, paint a more muddled picture of an understaffed Cincinnati outpost that was alienated from the broader I.R.S. culture and given little direction. Overseen by a revolving cast of midlevel managers, stalled by miscommunication with I.R.S. lawyers and executives in Washington and confused about the rules they were enforcing, the Cincinnati specialists flagged virtually every application with Tea Party in its name. But their review went beyond conservative groups: more than 400 organizations came under scrutiny, including at least two dozen liberal-leaning ones and some that were seemingly apolitical.”

*** Obama’s Morehouse speech: Also on Sunday, President Obama delivered a very personal commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. “Keep setting an example for what it means to be a man,” he told the graduates at the historically black college. “Be the best husband to your wife, or you’re your boyfriend, or your partner. Be the best father you can be to your children. Because nothing is more important.” The president added, “I was raised by a heroic single mom, wonderful grandparents -- made incredible sacrifices for me… But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved. Didn’t know my dad. And so my whole life, I’ve tried to be for Michelle and my girls what my father was not for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle where a father is not at home, where a father is not helping to raise that son or daughter. “I want to be a better father, a better husband, a better man.” And pair Obama’s commencement address with the one his wife delivered on Friday at another historically black college (Bowie State): “Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper… Please reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white.”

*** Two unions now oppose Senate immigration legislation: On the topic of immigration… The National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council, a union representing 12,000 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers, “will publicly oppose the Senate Gang of Eight immigration plan Monday, giving critics of the overhaul effort additional political ammunition as they work to defeat legislation working its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee,” NBC’s Carrie Dann reports. The reason for the opposition: The union believes the legislation “would fail to address an ‘insurmountable bureaucracy’ at the federal agency overseeing immigration documents.” Dann adds that this union joins the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council in its opposition to the Gang of Eight measure.

*** Getting the band back together -- or not: It should be hardly surprising that folks like Howard Wolfson, Patti Solis Doyle, and Mark Penn would NOT work on a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign if she decides to run in 2016, as the Washington Post reports. After all, none of these people went on to join her at the State Department like other trusted Hillary Inc. aides did. What’s more, Solis Doyle was sacked as campaign manager after Clinton lost Iowa. If Clinton runs, it would likely be a combination of trusted former aides, as well as some new blood. That’s often true for plenty of repeat presidential candidates. Yet there’s another way to look at this Washington Post piece: It’s a message to many outside of Hillary World, especially those who were critical of the ’08 Hillary campaign, that the whole band won’t be getting back together if she runs in ’16. And those folks might see this as a positive development.

*** Meet E.W. Jackson: Virginia Republicans this year are conducting an intriguing experiment in Virginia, a state Obama has twice carried in presidential contests, that’s elected Democrats to U.S. Senate seats the last three times senate elections have been held: Can it win in 2013 with a ticket of candidates who are best known for being VERY conservative and VERY outspoken on social issues? Well, here is E.W. Jackson, a black minister who was nominated to be the GOP’s Lt. Gov. nominee joining Ken Cuccinelli at the top of the ticket. “The newly minted Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of Virginia once compared Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan and bemoaned black voters’ ‘slavish devotion’ to the Democratic Party — past statements that are likely to inflame the culture-war politics of the state’s 2013 elections,” Politico writes. Indeed, Jackson makes Cuccinelli look moderate on social issues. And this is what happens when you nominate candidates via a convention rather than a primary. Does anyone think that Jackson would have won the GOP’s Lt. Gov. primary? For what it’s worth, the nomination of Cuccinelli as attorney general four years ago was seen by some Republicans as a problem (and a potential opportunity for the Democrats). As it turned out, the top of the ticket could shield itself at the time. Of course, “LG” is more of a “running mate” feel and will be more difficult for Cuccinelli to shield himself from Jackson.

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