President Obama on NSA Wiretapping: Incompetent or Unaware?

There is no good answer.

“Asleep at the wheel” is the idiom we use for a leader who is so inattentive at important moments that he or she is dangerous. For some inexplicable reason, the White House image masters have decided it’s better having President Obama seem clueless than in command.

If we are to believe the administration’s spin, the President didn’t know that the NSA was running a continuous wiretap on the phone of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and 34 other world leaders, he didn’t know that the Affordable Health Care web site was not ready and when four Americans were being killed during a terrorist attack in Benghazi, the President quite literally went to sleep.

Most administrations break their collective necks to make their leader look engaged and involved, even when he isn’t. The day after President Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt, the administration was eager to tell the world that the President was awake, alert, signing legislation and meeting with senior White House officials. The disclosure that President Reagan was closer to death than originally reported and incapacitated the next day was reported decades later.

At a time of crisis, historically the priority of the White House communication team has been to paint the President as strong and in control. This team goes way out of its way to paint the President as clueless in times of crisis.

It hasn’t always been this way. The White House made certain that President Obama was given every ounce of credit for the killing of Osama Bin Laden. If they thought they would have been able to sell it, they would have put him in the compound with Seal Team Six. In a story leaked to the New York Times about a terrorist kill list, the White House wanted the world to know that the President attended the weekly counterterrorism meeting and personally decided when a drone would be sent to take out a suspected terrorist.

Are we now to believe that the same President is disconnected from the rollout of his signature legislative accomplishment, from the surveillance of one of his closest allies and from the killing of our Americans by terrorists in Libya? It doesn’t make sense.

One can only come to the worrisome and dangerous assumption that the White House believes the damage to the President would be greater if he knew about a series of debacles than if it was kept from him.

President Teddy Roosevelt Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk that read “The Buck Stops Here.” If you are to believe the current narrative spun by the White House, President Obama wants the Buck, but it’s being kept from him. If that is the case, why aren’t the people who are Bogarting the Buck fired? Or is the President so clueless he doesn’t even know who has the Buck. Again, it doesn’t make sense.

NBC analyst Chuck Todd reported that he asked a senior White House official if he was more concerned about the surveillance of the German Prime Minister or how the leak was being handled. Without hesitation the officials said he was upset about the handling.

It is ironic that an administration that famously—some would say infamously—puts style over substance, has painted itself into an image corner, where there are no good options: Either the President is incompetent or unaware.

In this country, the administration has done a fairly good job of mitigating the damage from the NSA surveillance of world leaders. It is overshadowed by the Obamacare web site debacle. But in Europe, the NSA story is dominating the headlines. Real damage is being done to America’s standing with our allies. That damage is dangerously exacerbated by the image of a disconnected and disinterested President.

The White House message to those foreign governments looking for America’s President to take control is this: Not only is he not behind the wheel, he’s asleep in the backseat.