Confronted with missteps in his own administration, President Barack Obama has frequently pleaded ignorance — suggesting he could not be at fault about things he did not know.
It’s an argument with clear benefits but also inherent risks for the White House. Used too often, the tactic emboldens critics who claim the president is incompetent, detached and not fully in control.
Eager to protect Obama’s time and concentration, his aides deliberate intensively about what to tell the president, current and former White House officials said. His advisers act as a triage team for an endless flood of information coming into the White House, continually making decisions about which snippets of data Obama might need.
What makes the cut: Information that’s likely to require a presidential decision, come up during a public appearance or inform Obama’s longer-term thinking, as well as major developments relating to national security or Obama’s domestic priorities.
Everything else, including most of the myriad details of how policies and laws are carried out, remains with staff and agencies. If and when things go wrong, as they invariably do in the sprawling federal government, the White House can seek to sidestep uncomfortable questions by saying the issue never rose to the presidential level.
Month after month, for a full year before healthcare.gov website went live, Obama posed the same questions in regular meetings with his advisers and top health officials: “How’s the website? Will it work,” according to one official present for the meetings.
But nobody ever signaled to the president that deep-seated problems with the site would lead to a near-meltdown immediately after its debut, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal meetings.
“I told the president that we were ready to go. Clearly I was wrong. We were wrong,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told Congress on Wednesday, shifting the blame from the president to herself.
A similar logic played out this week as a U.S. official said the president didn’t learn until recently — five years into Obama’s presidency — that the National Security Agency had been secretly monitoring the German chancellor’s cellphone for a decade. And the White House said earlier this year that Obama was unaware of an investigation into whether IRS agents improperly targeted TEA Party groups for extra scrutiny, even though top White House aides knew.
Yet, White House officials said Obama has created a culture wherein aides are expected to err on the side of providing more information, and frequently sends staffers away from meetings with “homework assignments” when all of his questions haven’t been answered.
And as the full extent of the healthcare.gov problems became clear, Obama told aides he wished they would have told him more — a directive that’s not uncommon from Obama when he’s caught off-guard by pitfalls, said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior adviser.
“The things that come back to bite you are the things you didn’t know to tell him about,” Pfeiffer said. “The last thing you want to do is not tell him something that’s bad news that you think he doesn’t want to hear.”
“That will get you in trouble the fastest,” Pfeiffer added.
Ari Fleischer, former President George W. Bush’s press secretary, said after Bush was burned by bad information about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush stopped blindly accepting what he was told and began demanding that the CIA and other agencies walk through their logic in front of him.
“You want everybody to be looking over their shoulders, saying ‘the boss is watching,’” Fleischer said.
Republicans have pounced on Obama’s assertion to claim a failure of leadership when it comes to implementing the health care law, his signature legislative achievement. Said the Republican National Committee: “Will he ever take responsibility for — let alone become aware of — how he’s running his government?”
In other cases, such as revelations the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed phone records for Associated Press journalists, the White House has insisted it would be inappropriate for Obama to be informed about law enforcement operations that are supposed to be carried out without political interference.
But officials who have served in Democratic and Republican administrations said it’s reasonable Obama wouldn’t know that the NSA was listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone.
Obama’s prime method for digesting intelligence information is the highly classified daily briefing he receives each morning. But the sources for the data points in that report are scrubbed well before it reaches the president, said James Andrew Lewis, a former State Department official and national security expert.
“It doesn’t say, ‘Oh, by the way, this came from Angela Merkel’s cellphone,’” Lewis said. “It’s like he doesn’t ask the cook, ‘Where did you buy the chicken this week?’”