Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Does Obama still have faith in government?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
October 29, 2013 -- Updated 1549 GMT (2349 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger says President Barack Obama has been a believer in high-tech government
  • She says the Obamacare website woes and NSA spy practices have to shake his faith
  • Borger: Shouldn't White House have taken control of the signature health care initiative?
  • President may now be among 80% of Americans with little faith in government, she says

(CNN) -- Irony is a part of life, the cliché goes. And right now, President Barack Obama is living the part, in a big way: He's the civil libertarian defending an activist drone program. He's the liberal with a spy agency caught eavesdropping on the private conversations of friendly leaders. And he's the high-tech health care reformer whose website got stuck at Go.

And so the ultimate irony may be this -- a President who extols the virtues of government has now been sucked into the big government vortex, experiencing (up close and personal, as they say) what it feels like to lose control to the bureaucrats. The ones who are afraid to deliver bad news, not to mention those who don't deliver the news at all. (As in, "the website crashed.") And the surveillance chiefs who, um, didn't initially volunteer that they're spying on the private phone lines of America's best friends.

Maybe the President needs to figure out some new communications tools to make himself clear. (As in, "Angela Merkel's cell is not just another data point.")

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

Obama, we're told, is frustrated and angered by the pathetic rollout of his signature legislative achievement. He's also clearly re-examining how the National Security Agency decides to target friendly leaders, what we get from it and why we need it at all.

A couple of ex-intelligence officials tell me they're not shocked gambling was going on in Casablanca. ("Our job is to know things," says one.) Whether the President should have known about the monitoring of these specific heads of state is another matter entirely -- and best left to intelligence aficionados. I've asked -- and gotten answers on both sides of the argument.

But here are the larger questions that play into both the website fiasco and the NSA issues: How can a President take control of his own government? How can he make sure he knows what he needs to know? And as the pro-government cheerleader, doesn't he have a special responsibility to make sure it delivers, especially when his legacy hangs in the balance?

The problem is it's never easy to untangle a bureaucratic mess. "So you're the President, you're angry and you want to know how all of this happened," says a former senior administration official. "And the truth is, even you may not be able to figure it out. You just won't have enough time left in office."

Stunning as that sounds, it's probably accurate. Presidents are often isolated, and always the first among equals. So it seems to me that especially in the White House one of the principal jobs of an executive is to understand the incentive subordinates have to conceal information selectively.

People may report facts and then spin them. Bad news is not a good thing to deliver to presidents. Some are protective of the office and the President; giving the President plausible deniability of any problem is often the easiest and safest route. Or, as one former White House hand told me, "People just don't want to upset the boss, or get him blamed for anything."

All of which a President should know going into the Oval Office. If the reason the President did not know about the epic website issues is because the problems were hidden from the ground up, how about this solution: Establish an atmosphere, at all levels, in which truth telling is rewarded, not punished.

If Obama was surprised at the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, then on some level he failed one of the principal tests: Get the truth out of people, even if they know you are not going to like it.

Yes, this is government and humans are humans. But Obamacare has been the signature legislative achievement of this presidency. Everyone knew how complex this would be to get going, at every level.

So here's a question: Why wasn't the A-team led out of the White House, with a daily update to the president? Obama the campaigner was incomparably good at establishing metrics and using information technology to assess the extent to which those metrics were being hit. What happened here?

What seems to have happened was what often happens: The work got delegated to the bureaucrats somewhere else -- HHS? CMS? -- and, as a result, it got bogged down, delayed and muddled. Mistakes went either hidden or unrecognized. If folks down the food chain knew, they were keeping it from their bosses. After all, no reward in telling the truth.

The big question now is whether these problems are evidence of a huge management failure. "One of the things you find after working in government is that, under tremendous pressure, organizations that are supposed to produce accurate information, often don't," says a former senior administration official (think Benghazi). "And you can only rely on what people are telling you."

Or not telling you, as in the case of Merkel's cell phone. If the President and senior officials were not told about the wide range of the program, who thought that secrecy was a good idea?

Does a President have to play a game of Twenty Questions with his own people to figure things out? Or, conversely, as some intelligence officials claim, if the President did know something -- some giblet -- why not more? It's not as if Obama is a passive examiner of intelligence; quite the contrary. So what gives here?

Consider this: You're President Obama. You believe in the affirmative use of government. You're trying to govern a country that has lost confidence in the ability of that government to execute anything. And now you discover the website of your prized legislative achievement is a disaster. And the spies were tapping a good ally's cell phone, for no immediately obvious reason.

The final irony may be this: Four out of five Americans have little or no trust in their government to do anything right. And now Obama probably feels the same way.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT