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
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT