President Obama's Questionable Company

On Wednesday, President Obama exercised executive privilege and refused to turn over his administration’s Fast and Furious documents in response to a subpoena by the House Oversight Committee.

By doing so, President Obama joins the dubious ranks of Richard Nixon, who used executive privilege to try to cover up Watergate, Bill Clinton, who tried to hide the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Dick Cheney, who avoided disclosing information about meetings with Enron lobbyists. Is this really the company President Barack Obama wants to keep only four-and-a-half months away from an election that’s anybody’s game at this stage?

And is the President headed into a summer of malaise, weighed down by a possible mangling of Obamacare, a still-sagging economy, and a nasty legal distraction?

In exercising executive privilege, President Obama handed the GOP a big issue on a silver platter. The GOP will continue to beat this drum until November and, perhaps, beyond.

It’s an ideal situation for the GOP because it’s driven by their majority in the House, which is energized by 87 aggressive, conservative frosh members. And Mitt Romney can stay one step removed — and above — the ugly fracas.

If the President wants a separation of powers fight premised on a shady gun-running sting program that came to light after the murder of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, Republicans in the House will gladly give him one. And Democrats in the House won’t be happy about it heading into their own election cycle, as they’ll likely let the president and his senior staff know in private. The controversy will continue to resonate as long as the GOP majority doesn’t overplay its hand, as it’s wont to do.

The concept of executive privilege in the abstract is a good thing. The President, as with any chief executive, needs to solicit and receive frank advice from myriad advisers without concern that these discussions will end up in the public domain. It’s why the idea, though not part of the plain language of the Constitution, has been recognized by the Supreme Court at least since Marbury v. Madison in 1803. On a first-hand note, having served a Governor as legal counsel, I certainly didn’t expect the advice I rendered to my boss on legitimate policy and legal issues to end up outside of that room. It would be impossible for both sides to function under those circumstances.

The issue that’s emerged here, however, isn’t the merits of executive privilege, but when and how a president might use it. Abusing the principle to hide an embarrassing mess — or worse, malfeasance — that a co-equal branch of government wants information about, is not a legitimate exercise.

The sordid history of misuse of this precious privilege leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many potential Obama voters and much of the media who will be covering the race. Those who came of age during Vietnam and the upheavals of the early 1970s resent the smarmy cover-up aspect; it is way too reminiscent of the bad old days. For younger voters, it smacks of cynicism, something they tried to escape by voting for the man in 2008. To them, he embodied “hope” and “change,” not more of the same.

It’s odd that an administration that allegedly leaks out details on sensitive intelligence operations like a sieve is afraid to discuss the poor strategy and tactics of this ill-conceived operation and hold those responsible for the blunders accountable. And it’s surprising that the President’s political advisers allowed him to be painted into a corner like this. They should have managed the outcome far better a year ago when the issue reared its ugly head.

Though the President’s political advisers plan to keep the gory details under wraps beyond November, the President will grow tired of this albatross and will eventually decide — if he hasn’t already — to pressure Attorney General Eric Holder to resign. The AG’s ‘resignation’ would be the only way to lower the decibel level on this story at least until the election.

Much of the damage is done already, though, and the response to Fast and Furious will go down with those to Watergate, Lewinsky, and Enron as low points in Presidential history.