Obama's crappy week

In just a couple of days, Obama's government machine had managed to inflame both their political opponents and the press to apoplexy, writes Nicky Woolf.

I arrive back in America after a brief sojourn in Blighty to find Obama suddenly floundering. After the bullishness of his State of the Union address just a few months ago, the dreaded second-term blues have struck with brutal suddenness. 

It wasn't enough that the gun control legislation so cherished by his administration appears to have foundered on the rocks of an obstructive congress. Nor that, a couple of weeks ago, the same congress in its infinite recalcitrance allowed the country to fling itself off the sequestration cliff. Nor even that Republican insistence that the State Department's handling of the Benghazi attacks was mismanaged continues to hang around like a terrible smell on a breezeless day.

First to emerge this week was the bigger scandal: that the Internal Revenue Service has been intentionally targeting right-wing groups, including Tea Party groups for extra and unfair scrutiny, singling them out by name. It is unclear as yet whose initiative this is, but it has rightly caused a storm of outrage from all over the political spectrum. 

Punch-drunk and struggling to regain control of the news agenda, Obama demanded – and got – the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner, Stephen Miller on Wednesday, but this appears not to have worked; congressional Republicans have the scent of blood now. If they can prove the White House was encouraging the IRS to target right-leaning political organisations – extremely unlikely though this is – it could be Obama's Watergate. Much more likely is that such a link won't be found, but every Republican committee-chair in both houses will be queuing up to take a swing; to grandstand and to drag Obama through the mud. 

Enter Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, whose hearings this week have shaped him as a sort of nemesis-figure for the administration, and whose new-found fame will only grow as the story develops with him in the limelight.

Just the IRS scandal would have been enough to rock the administration. But the week held more. On Monday it emerged that the Department of Justice had secretly obtained several months' worth of records from private phone conversations between editors and reporters at the Associated Press as part of an investigation of a leak – an unprecedented liberty to take with the freedom of the press.

In just a couple of days, Obama's government machine had managed to inflame both their political opponents and the press to apoplexy. 

Everyone on the government side, in fact, spent the week furiously buck-passing. At first, Attorney General Eric Holder, up to bat against the inescapable Issa, defended the phone record seizure; then, in exchanges with Issa at the latter's committee hearings that became extremely heated indeed – at one point Holder dramatically snapped back at Issa, calling his conduct “unacceptable and shameful” - but ultimately shoved the responsibility for ordering the subpoena on his deputy, James Cole.

 Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has spent an unenviable week trying desperately to keep his boss away from both scandals – which has ultimately meant dumping blame on those in the DoJ and the IRS, attacking the Republicans as acting for partisan gains. 

He hasn't been particularly successful. This is the kind of week that can hobble a Presidency. With Issa, revelling in the spotlight, set to grill former IRS commissioner Doug Shulman next week, various committees of both houses of congress are now piling in to add their own investigations, looking for their own slice of the publicity pie. It looks certain that things are going to get worse for the Obama administration before they get better.

 

Obama speaks in the Rose Garden as a marine shelters him from the rain. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Leader: The age of Putinism

There is no leader who exerts a more malign influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin.

There is no leader who exerts a more malign ­influence on world affairs than Vladimir Putin. In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has significantly strengthened the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. Under the guise of fighting Islamist terrorism, Mr Putin’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and destroyed hospitals and schools. Syrian government forces and their foreign allies have moved closer to regaining control of the rebel-held, besieged eastern part of Aleppo, a city in ruins, after a period of intense fighting and aerial bombardment. In Europe, Russia has moved nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, through the streets of which the great philosopher Immanuel Kant used to take his daily walk.

Across the West, however, Mr Putin is being feted. As Brendan Simms writes on page 30, the Russian president has “annexed Crimea, unleashed a proxy war in eastern Ukraine and threatens Nato’s eastern flank, to say nothing of his other crimes”. Yet this has not deterred his Western sympathisers. In the US, Donald Trump has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian autocrat as a fellow ethnic nationalist and “strongman”. The president-elect’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence is an invitation to Russian expansionism in the Baltic states and eastern Europe.

Mr Trump is far from alone in his admiration for Mr Putin. In France, François Fillon, the socially conservative presidential candidate for the Républicains, favours the repeal of European sanctions against Russia (imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea) and a military alliance in Syria. In return, Mr Putin has praised his French ally as “a great professional” and a “very principled person”.

Perhaps the one certainty of the French election next spring is that Russia will benefit. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and Mr Fillon’s likely opponent in the final round, is another devotee of the Russian president. “Putin is looking after the interests of his own country and defending its identity,” she recently declared. Like Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen seems to aspire to create a world in which leaders are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of rebuke.

In Britain, Paul Nuttall, the newly elected leader of the UK Independence Party, has said that Mr Putin is “generally getting it right” in Syria. Mr Nuttall’s predecessor Nigel Farage named the Russian leader as the politician he admired most.

Mr Putin, who aims to defeat the West by dividing it, could not have scripted more favourable publicity. But such lion­isation masks Russia’s profound weaknesses. The country’s economy has been in recession for two years, following the end of the commodities boom, the collapse in the oil price and the imposition of sanctions. Its corrupt and inefficient bureaucratic state now accounts for 70 per cent of its GDP. Its population is ageing rapidly (partly the result of a low ­fertility rate) and is forecast to shrink by 10 per cent over the next 30 years, while life expectancy is now lower than it was in the late 1950s.

Yet this grim context makes Mr Putin an even more dangerous opponent. To maintain his internal standing (and he is popular in Russia), he must pursue external aggression. His rule depends on seeking foreign scapegoats to blame for domestic woes. Not since the Cold War has the threat to Russia’s eastern European neighbours been greater.

How best to respond to Putinism? The United Kingdom, as Europe’s leading military power (along with France), will be forced to devote greater resources to defence. Theresa May has rightly pledged to station more British troops in eastern Europe and to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements, providing for a ceasefire in Ukraine, are implemented. The Prime Minister has also condemned Russia’s “sickening atrocities” in Syria. Germany, where Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor, will be another crucial counterweight to a pro-Russian France.

It is neither just nor wise for the West to appease Mr Putin, one of the icons of the illiberal world. The Russian president will exploit any weakness for his own ends. As Tony Blair said in his New Statesman interview last week, “The language that President Putin understands is strength.” Although Russia is economically weak, it aspires to be a great power. We live in the age of Putinism. Donald Trump’s victory has merely empowered this insidious doctrine.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage