From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “President Obama’s Epic, Tragic Incompetence: A Review”


I was not planning on re-posting this depressing piece from 2014. I found it while I was doing some research on a post that may have to wait until tomorrow, noting the delightful embarrassment of evidence of Bill Clinton accepting the favors of one of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex slaves being published today, just as Bill prepared to address the Democrat’s virtual convention.

But I realized that this was an ideal time to revisit the post, as the Democrats devote their convention to weaving dreams of an alternate past, when the Presidency was in masterful hands before Donald Trump screwed it up.

I am not entirely happy with the post; amazingly, I did not even mention what may be Obama’s worst, most lasting and most ironic failing, his steady undermining of American race relations, the tragic consequences of which we are seeing today. Four months after I wrote this, a large, angry teen attacked a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri and got himself shot. Obama chose not to use his popularity with African Americans to quiet the anger, but to  facilitate the exploitation of it.


I stumbled upon this piece in Commentary by Peter Wehner. At first I was grateful that he had written it so I didn’t have to, and then was struck by the title: The New Obama Narrative: Epic Incompetence. New? This has been the narrative of the entire Obama Presidency, and I have been periodically and grimly drawing attention to that fact, while watching the mainstream media attempt to obscure it, from the very beginning. Now, as the Veteran Administration fiasco finally presents a scandal that Democrats and journalists don’t dare to try to dismiss as, in Dana Milbank’s description of the Benghazi cover-up, a “nothing-burger,” incompetence in the unaccountable, unmanaged, embarrassingly unprofessional Obama Administration is suddenly being pronounced unacceptable. To the contrary, it is because the news media unethically accepted it that the incompetence of this President is finally killing people.

The tragic legacy of Barack Obama will be recorded in three parts: his groundbreaking achievement as the nation’s first black President, his utter incompetence at governing and leadership, and his dishonesty and the dishonesty he engendered by those who reported to him. The first has been fatally undermined by the second and third, and the third, dishonesty, necessitated by the second, the relentless incompetence. The reason this is so tragic should be obvious to all. President Obama, like all trailblazers, needed to be a stand-out, exemplary performer to avoid setting back the causes his ascension needed to advance. But instead of Jackie Robinson, he has been Pumpsie Green, and that may be unfair to Pumpsie, the first black player to wear a Boston Red Sox uniform who knew his limitations, and did the best he could for as long as he could. It is also tragic because America, as much as any time in its history prior to the Civil War, needed a strong, wise, confident, unifying leader to deal with great and difficult problems that will only get worse with time. The challenges would have tested the best of leaders; for President Obama, with neither leadership instincts or talent, they have proven impossible. Worse, the basic requirements of governing have been proven to be beyond him, and he does not have the self-awareness or humility to seek the help he needs.

From Wehner’s piece:

“The emerging narrative of Barack Obama, the one that actually comports to reality, is that he is a rare political talent but a disaster when it comes to actually governing. The list of his failures is nothing short of staggering, from shovel-ready jobs that weren’t so shovel ready to the failures of to the VA debacle. But it also includes the president’s failure to tame the debt, lower poverty, decrease income inequality, and increase job creation. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay and didn’t. His administration promised to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before a civilian jury in New York but they were forced to retreat because of outrage in his own party…The White House response to everything from the VA and IRS scandals to the seizure of AP phone records by the Department of Justice is that it learned about them from press reports. More and more Mr. Obama speaks as if he’s a passive actor, a bystander in his own administration, an MSNBC commentator speaking about events he has no real control over. We saw that earlier today, when the president, in trying to address the public’s growing outrage at what’s happening at the VA, insisted he “will not stand for it” and “will not tolerate” what he has stood for and tolerated for almost six years…On every front, he is overmatched by events. It’s painful to watch a man who is so obviously in over his head. And more and more Americans are suffering because of it.”

Just as surprising as the fact that this is still being written as if it were news is that so many pundits, journalists and citizens still deny that the obvious is true. Every agency and department shows evidence of mismanagement, and yet virtually no one is held accountable by the President. He even seems to fail to grasp that such ineptitude is a problem. Asking the Veteran’s Administration to investigate its own scandal, like having Eric Holder’s consiglieri Justice Department investigate “Fast and Furious,” or an Obama political donor to oversee the investigation of the IRS’s misconduct, appears to be a defiant statement that there will be no accountability in the Obama regime, and that only how they play with “the base” matters, not whether the country is governed well. Ron Fournier writes in the National Journal:

“In his speech on the VA, the president said that he would not stand for things that he clearly and undeniably has stood for some years now, and swore that he would not tolerate that which has been tolerating since 2009.  He’s been described as acting like a bystander to his own presidency, but it’s more like he’s a victim of it, as though the presidency were this terrible thing that just happened to him one day that he’s now courageously dealing with…Every time he has some spectacular screw-up, which seems to be about once a quarter, he pronounces himself outraged, as though he had not failed us but had been failed himself. So Barack Obama has sworn that he will not tolerate the incompetence of the Obama administration….”

But, of course, he does. The dishonesty of the Obama Administration, meanwhile, is a long, deep topic for another time. In the interest of perspective, I’m going to recall some of what has appeared on this site regarding the Presidential incompetence that is harming America and Americans in so many ways. I do this not to say “I told you so,” but really to point elsewhere. Not many people read Ethics Alarms, but mainstream journalists had a duty to inform the public, if they were not attentive or smart enough to figure it out themselves, that their President wasn’t up to the job, and that this was, as it always is, dangerous. They didn’t perform that duty; indeed, they denied, aided and abetted the incompetence, and still are. But they knew. They had to know, didn’t they? And if they didn’t, they could have asked me:

From 4/29/13 (The “Red Line” fiasco):

“Not everybody should be a leader, and it is no shame if you have no talent for it.  It is tempting to think that all intelligent, educated, articulate people within a certain range of emotional stability and sanity can learn to be effective leaders, but history and experience tell a different story, and it has many tragic chapters.I know many readers think that I get great joy out of criticizing President Obama for his lack of leadership skills and instincts, but in truth I find myself consciously avoiding writing about this almost every day, because the problem is on display that regularly, and this isn’t a Bash Obama blog. I do find it remarkable that such an obviously intelligent man is so immune to leadership instincts, and that he hasn’t resolved to at least try to learn from his more naturally leadership-gifted predecessors…Yes, I was dubious about Obama’s leadership credentials from his candidacy … because he had literally led nothing, but also hopeful, because other Presidents, not just Lincoln but also JFK and Truman, showed a natural talent for leading once they were in office. Then President Obama began using his predecessor as an excuse for every failure, attacking media figures and outlets by name, injecting himself into local matters and law-enforcement, refusing to hold under-performing or incompetent subordinates accountable for their actions, and eroding his own credibility and likability with gratuitous examples of deceit and dishonesty. Worst of all, he seemed, and seems, incapable of learning from his mistakes, the most damning deficit of all.”

From  9/6/13  (The “Red Line” fiasco): “Congress’s obligation is to do what is in the best interests of the United States of America, not its President. The United States is not made stronger or more credible by its legislature showing that it will authorize deadly force against a sovereign nation simply to save face for an arrogant and incompetent Chief Executive who has already avoided the consequences of his own inept leadership and poor judgment too many times. Allow him to duck accountability again—Obama’s entire tenure has been about ducking accountability—and we will only face a worse consequence of it down the line. This fiasco was inevitable, and I predicted it long ago. The United States of America, not for the first time, but certainly at one of the worst times, has allowed itself to be led by a man who has no instincts or talent for leadership, and worse, appears to be an incurable narcissist. Historians… those who have the integrity, that is…can debate how this came to pass, but for anyone objective, the evidence is conclusive, with the Syria mess the decisive evidence.”

From 10/19/13  (Obamacare): “What is needed is a demonstration that incompetence and failure in the executive branch has consequences, and the signature feature of the Obama years is that there are none. Accountability doesn’t exist. The President doesn’t believe in it, and apparently the American public, again bolstered by a lapdog media, doesn’t comprehend the reason it is essential. That’s the horror, and it is far more disturbing than the failure of the Obamacare site itself.

Presumably, the website and the enrollment system will work eventually. But a government to which the public casually and recklessly cedes more and more of its control over its welfare will become progressively more inefficient, incompetent, expensive, wasteful, foolish, abusive and arrogant and attract leaders and employees who are so inclined if there is not swift and effective accountability for not meeting goals, not keeping promises, not making deadlines, and perpetually blaming external factors and others for poor performance. This is not a partisan complaint. This is Management Ethics 101, Leadership For Tyros, and Success . We have only one national government, and the culture being built from the top from the very first day has been that nobody will ever be held accountable for the failures and fiascos that occur under their oversight, and that no executive will ever be expected to accept responsibility and what naturally follows from responsibility.  No high official has been fired as a result of the I.R.S.’s partisan and illegal activities that have been thoroughly detailed (but barely reported) in the ongoing House hearings. There were no consequences at the State Department as a result of the Benghazi fiasco—other than the Libyan ambassador, that is, who paid with his life. The TSA’s performance has been an ongoing embarrassment, with no high level accountability. Eric Holder has been responsible for multiple fiascos—Fast and Furious, the AP surveillance, the stuttering plans to prosecute terrorists in civil trials, and more—any one of which would have cost previous Attorney Generals their jobs, though most would have had the dignity and self-respect to resign before being sacked. Press Secretary Jay Carney has been dishonest and incompetent in a job that mandates trust, yet he is still in his post. Now the appointee avoiding accountability is Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who has told the House committee investigating the website mess as it should, that she will not testify. Of course not. Testifying is part of  accountability, and this Administration’s preferred course is to duck, spin, deny and reject it. That is how President Obama has handled his own accountability issues as well.

Fish. Rots. Head. Down.

And, astoundingly and ominously, the media and the public allow, accept, and therefore encourage this. The Affordable Care Act could be the most brilliant, well-conceived, well-planned and perfectly drafted law in the history of mankind, but if it is entrusted to an inherently untrustworthy government that does not value, accept and execute accountability, it will fail.”

From 5/13/13 (The IRS Scandal): “Contrived ignorance by leaders is the unmistakable brand of a knowingly unethical management structure and culture: “Just do what you have to do to get the job done; don’t tell me about it, don’t ask for permission, and most of all, don’t get caught!” I tell my ethics classes in companies and bar associations that when they hear a supervisor say anything like that, or sense that this is the message employees are getting, their job is to either fix the culture or find another job. Contrived ignorance is how you get Watergate burglaries. It is how Thomas Beckett gets murdered in the cathedral. It is what the Nazi judges used as their defense in the second round of the Nuremberg trials (as portrayed in the Anny Mann film “Judgment at Nuremberg”) , claiming that they enforced the corrupt legal system without understanding the part they were playing in atrocities, because they didn’t want to know. It is how unscrupulous corporate executives squeeze managers into employing unfair labor practices, and then tell authorities that “what they did was certainly not consistent with our policies. We knew nothing about what was going on!”

From 5/19/13 (On incompetency and the scandals): “President Obama and Attorney General Holder. Don’t take my word for it, ask them. Each has sworn that he is completely unaware of major initiatives and official misconduct in government departments and agencies over which he has direct control. A probe was underway implicating the I.R.S’s efforts to target conservative groups since early 2012, but the President just heard about it when we did. He repeated the disinformation that the Benghazi attacks were in response to a video before the U.N., but will hold nobody under his supervision responsible for making him an engine of deceit. It’s not just in the areas currently getting most of the headlines, either. The President is Commander-in-Chief for the Armed Forces,  and as any observer of the Democratic National Convention knows, he in the standard bearer for “the party of women.” Yet on his watch, as detailed in a recent Pentagon report, women have received systemic  sexual abuse across the Armed Services at a shocking rate. The results of his non-management of the Executive Branch are evident in other ways as well: HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, who already violated the Hatch Act last election and was given a pass, is now using her position to solicit private support — including from insurance companies — for Enroll America, a nonprofit group devoted to expanding access to health care that a former Obama administration staffer runs.This may be illegal, but is unquestionably unethical. Where’s her supervisor? Oh…right. There are no consequences for poor, inept or corrupt  performance under this passive Chief Executive…”

From December 3, 2013 (On Obamacare): “It gives me no pleasure to say that I saw the signs of this years ago, for years ago there was reason to be hopeful. Presidents learn, most of them, anyway. This one, without any experience to speak of in governing, management, leadership or even organizational process, not only hasn’t learned, but has never shown the slightest recognition that he has anything to learn.The nation, like a crippled ship without a captain, is adrift in a way that it hasn’t experienced since President Franklin Pierce, with the country falling apart around him, sat depressed and drinking in the White House, barely able to function after seeing his young son decapitated before his eyes and witnessing the emotional unraveling of his grief-stricken wife (who seldom left her room and spent her lucid moments writing letters to the spirit of her headless son) in the aftermath. At least poor Pierce had an excuse, and mercifully, he was only in office four years. President Obama has no excuse, and while no civil war is brewing, the consequences of his resolute non-leadership are just beginning to be felt.The smoking gun evidence of leadership and management incompetence is this: nobody, not a single person, has been fired as a consequence of the ACA’s unforgivable state. Just as Noonan and her unnamed friend can’t imagine another President ignoring the management of his own crucial initiative until it started falling apart in chunks, it is unimaginable that an engaged, competent President, indeed any competent leader, CEO, manager, or owner of a small town bakery, would fail to dictate extensive personnel changes swiftly and ostentatiously after a fiasco like this. Yet, incredibly, this is how our nation is being led. This is incompetence. It is unforgivable, it is indefensible, and it is undeniable. And it is terrifying.

Well. I have many more, but this is making me more depressed….even more depressed than wondering what other catastrophic results of the ongoing leadership malpractice await us. You know they are out there, furiously being covered up, until they can’t be covered up any longer. Then the spin starts, the denials, the fake investigations, the attempt to cast blame elsewhere, anywhere. The accusations of racism. It is so sad, and devastating to our confidence, our image, and the nation’s future. We will be suffering from the consequences of this tragedy for decades to come.


6 thoughts on “From The Ethics Alarms Archives: “President Obama’s Epic, Tragic Incompetence: A Review”

    • I’ll do a substantial post on this eventually, but here’s a short answer. There are three mains features to Presidential leadership: What the President does, how he does it, and his stewardship of the office. On his accomplishments and his actions in support of his stated agenda, you have to rate Trump as strong, certainly relative to Obama. He was right on the economy and to make it rebound. He took aggressive action against illegal immigration. He reversed disastrous Obama policies on education and Iran. he didn’t get into any new wars. He eliminated regulations and appointed conservative judges.

      He has failed on the deficit and debt, and also on infrastructure, and those are big failures.

      On the “how” side, Trump has been, as predicted, horrible. Chaotic, undiplomatic, deliberately divisive, sloppy, undignified. Lots of terrible appointments. Gratuitous alienating of potential allies. The tweets..

      Because of this, he has damaged the image of the Presidency, like Nixon, and Clinton, but worse than Clinton.

      However, Trump deserves this consideration: he was never given a chance to lead the way every other President has. He deserves credit for fighting, not giving up, and protecting our institutions from attack.

      • Thanks for the response, and definitely worth a full post down the line. I like how you separate the “what” and the “how”, which so many fail to do, not just in judging Trump, but in judging important people in general.

  1. Man. That was a tour de force in management ethics. It should be required reading for all government and business management courses, regardless that it is taking shots at St. Barack. The most striking part of this is that it was written in 2013. Imagine what it would have sounded like had it been written in 2016 or 2018. The best part is that is it non-partisan. Our inestimable Ethics Alarmist has taken the Trump Administration to task for its unethical actions and behaviors.


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