Linda Chavez

Lucky for Barack Obama, he's the president of the United States and not the CEO of a major corporation. If he were the latter, his board would be busy seeking a replacement about now. But the American people have no such recourse. We elected him, and we're stuck for another three years and eight months, no matter the scandals that emerge in his administration nor how incompetent a chief executive he proves to be.

There is something more than a bit unseemly when the man in charge won't own up to his own responsibilities when his subordinates act improperly. But that's exactly how the president behaved when asked about the IRS' targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

At a press conference on May 16, the president postured: "Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I'm angry about it." But it turns out several high ranking White House officials knew about the brewing scandal for weeks before it became public. Their chief concern wasn't getting to the bottom of what happened but insulating the president from the fallout.

Both the president's chief of staff Denis McDonough and his chief counsel Kathy Ruemmler knew in mid-April that an IRS Inspector General's report critical of the way the agency handled conservative applications was due out imminently. But they chose not to tell the president -- or that's the official story anyway.

If it's true -- and I suspect it is -- the president should be very unhappy with these two. When it comes to malfeasance, "plausible deniability" shouldn't be the goal of a chief executive. A good CEO would haul McDonough and Ruemmler into his office and tell them to start packing. You don't keep bad news from the guy in charge in an effort to protect him.

But the problem goes deeper than who knew what when. The culture that encouraged White House officials to keep their mouths shut about wrong-doing is the same culture that motivated the behavior of IRS employees who thought it was their job to harass conservative groups. And that culture is set by "the tone at the top," a favorite among buzzwords in the corporate world.

In 2010, President Obama described tax-exempt groups that run issues campaigns without revealing their donors' names as "a threat to democracy." Now maybe he didn't intend to signal to employees in the tax-exempt branch of the IRS that they ought to be on the lookout for these nefarious organizations, but his words certainly set the stage for what followed.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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