Tone at the Top

Posted: May 25, 2013 12:01 AM

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.

It wasn't even a case of an executive turning a blind eye to misbehavior. President Obama's pronouncements made it seem as if IRS employees had a patriotic duty to keep the organizations the president was criticizing from gaining exempt status.

Now, of course, if these IRS employees had taken the president's words at face value, they would have gone after left-leaning groups, as well as those on the right. But then the president clearly didn't have progressive groups in mind when he spoke. In fact, the president made it clear that so-called super PACs friendly to his campaign were on the side of the angels -- and democracy -- when he accepted millions in donations from them in 2012.

Congress will continue to investigate the IRS scandal, and it's conceivable charges against some employees will be filed at some point. Clearly the director of the tax-exempt branch, Lois Lerner, believed she was in jeopardy of prosecution or she would not have asserted her Fifth Amendment right to refuse to testify this week. Lerner has subsequently been placed on administrative leave.

But even if there is no clear evidence that anyone in the White House directed the actions of Lerner and others in the IRS, the president is ultimately responsible. At the very least, he should fire anyone who tried to keep this story quiet, starting with those on his own staff.

Most of all, he owes the American people an apology -- and if he were in corporate America, a letter of resignation would likely accompany it.