Can the President Create a "Culture"?

As you may have noticed, the biggest problem with the IRS scandal (from the perspective of Republicans) is that it remains stubbornly removed from the President himself. It's all well and good to get a couple of scalps from mid-level managers, but for it to be a real presidential scandal you need to implicate the guy in the Oval Office in the wrongdoing. Confronted with Obama's non-involvement, conservatives have turned to vague and airy accusations about the "culture" Obama has created. Mitch McConnell, for instance, is warning darkly that Obama may be not too far removed from Tony Soprano: "I think what we know for sure is that there is a culture of intimidation across this administration—the president demonizing his enemies, attempting to shut people up. There is certainly a culture of intimidation."

The idea that Barack Obama—whom Republicans regularly accuse of being a foreign-born anti-American socialist communist marxist who is slowly carrying out a plan to destroy America—is the one "demonizing" his opponents is pretty laughable. But the nice thing about the "culture" argument is that to make it, you don't have to point to any particular thing any particular person has done. It's just a culture, out there in the ether.

Conservatives are also alleging that the IRS employees who gave extra scrutiny to 501(c)(4) applications of Tea Party groups were in fact acting on Obama's instructions. It was just that the instructions came in the form of him going out on the campaign trail and lamenting the Citizens United decision and the way it opened the door for all kinds of "dark money" to be injected into campaigns. Once again, it's a way of ascribing guilt without having any evidence of guilt, but the problem is, it fails from both ends. Lots of people, even many Republicans, joined Obama in lamenting the rise of the new super PACs and 501(c)(4)s. It was an issue when Republicans were using them against each other in the 2012 presidential primaries. And if the IRS employees were trying to help Obama, they were going about it all wrong. As Ed Kilgore says, "The ultimate howler here is that we are supposed to believe that IRS bureaucrats, in obedience to the "dog whistle" of the president's demonization of conservative groups' involvement in the 2012 presidential campaign, chose to ignore the groups that were involved in the campaign in a significant way, and instead go after small fry Tea Party organizations."

But can a president create a "culture" within the government that has consequences for the behavior of bureaucrats down the line, even to the point of sanctioning wrongdoing? The easy answer is, well, sure. Every boss creates an atmosphere that can affect the behavior of the people who work for her. But when you get beyond the people who work in the president's immediate orbit, what matters isn't culture, it's people and policies. For instance, the Bush administration didn't torture prisoners because Dick Cheney went on Meet the Press and said that to fight terrorism we'd have to go to "the dark side, if you will," and then folks just got the message and started waterboarding prisoners. It happened because the administration made torture its official policy, and had in place the personnel who were eager to do it.

The United States government is a gigantic entity; even excluding uniformed military, there are 2.7 million federal employees spread around the country. No one, not even the president, can with a few words on the campaign trail create a "culture" that allows misbehavior to happen. I realize that many conservatives believe that Obama and anyone who would ever consider working for him are so corrupt that their immorality must naturally spread through the government like the hantavirus. But that's not how it works.

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