Column: In a swirl at the White House
By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON — In thermodynamics, entropy is a measure of the energy unavailable for useful work. It is (and, yes, I had to look it up) both a reflection of disorder and a trend line; an isolated system proceeds in the direction of maximum entropy. The description feels disconcertingly apt for the chaotic reality of the Obama administration’s second term.
That part I didn’t have to look up. It’s swirling all around.
Let me start by conceding the exception to the entropic rule: the president’s steady handling of the debt ceiling/shutdown. The chaos there was confined to the other side.
Granted, as well, that the disordered reality is not unique to this administration. It may be a law of political thermodynamics that second-term presidencies have a tendency to unravel: Think Iran-contra, Monica Lewinsky, Hurricane Katrina.
Multiple factors contribute to this phenomenon. The triumphantly re-elected president may feel unrealistically invincible and overreach. The top tier of aides may have left. The remaining advisers may be tired and burned out. The inevitable tendency toward insularity in any White House collides with the fury of the opposition party at being shut out for a second time.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind: What looks like a toxic stew of problems may cook down to a more palatable, or at least less poisonous, essence. Five months ago, the supposed trifecta of scandals threatening to bring down the Obama presidency were White House talking points about Benghazi, Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department’s overaggressive probe of press leaks. All three seem, as some of us predicted, far less damaging in retrospect than they did in the political heat of the moment.
The menu of current problems feels far more perilous because these go to issues of core competency to govern:
Eavesdropping on foreign leaders. The choices here are unflattering. Either President Obama did not know what his spy agencies were up to, in which case he is not fully in control of the reins of power after nearly five years in office, or he knew, in which case he did not think through the obviously inadequate cost-benefit ratio and his aides are misleading the public now.
It’s tempting to write this one in all caps, but I’ll confine my alarm to italics: How could he not know? If he did know, how could he think the information gleaned could possibly be worth the risk of having foreign leaders discover the surveillance?
Syria. No, Mr. President, this is not a problem solved, critics-jumped-the-gun situation. Even if the country had been transformed into the Garden of Eden, the herky-jerky nature of the administration’s approach — drawing a red line, failing to enforce it, trumpeting enforcement, then suddenly shifting to Congress — does not portray the president in a flattering light. This is first year of first-term amateurishness, not the workings of an experienced president and well-functioning national security machinery.
More important, even assuming the threat of chemical weapons has abated, Syria is no paradise. As my colleague Michael Gerson aptly phrased it, “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is finding ways to attack women and children that the world finds more acceptable.” Watching your child die of starvation does not strike me as dramatically more pleasant than an excruciating but quick death by sarin gas. If the president is feeling good about his Syria policy, he needs to think again.
Oh yes, health care. The president’s signal domestic policy achievement. Probably the most important legacy of his administration. Time for italics again: So how could the rollout of the website be so bad? The administration both confesses colossal error and argues, perhaps correctly, that the end result may not be so disastrous. The president distinguishes between the underlying product — affordable, available health insurance — and the obstacles to purchasing it.
But the obstacles, if not fixed in time, threaten to undermine the quality of the product. If the “young invincibles” who are essential to making insurance affordable are deterred from signing up, the president’s vaunted “product” will be a lot pricier.
The spectacular botching of Obamacare’s launch does not, Republican wishing aside, mean that the program is doomed. But it does say something worrisome about the administration’s capability to administer an enterprise this complex.
In the physical world, entropy is an irreversible process. In the political world, luckily for the president, it is possible to bring order out of chaos. Now would be a good time to start.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.