by Jules Witcover

In the pell-mell rush in some quarters to equate the IRS scandal with Watergate, a question that featured prominently in the latter is bubbling up. That would be then-Sen. Howard Baker's query about Richard Nixon: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"

According to multiple White House sources, President Obama was not informed of the political screening of IRS tax-exemption applicants until, like the rest of us, he read of it in the newspapers. The alibi offered is that in the judgment of subordinates the matter did not rise to the level of significance requiring the chief executive's personal attention.

That excuse is a far cry from the real reason for Nixon's claim to have been in the dark regarding the origins of Watergate. His fingerprints were all over the efforts to cover up his personal involvement, not in the break-in of the Democratic headquarters itself but in trying to shut down the investigation on his doorstep.

The tapes of internal White House conversations, finally released by Supreme Court order, revealed in Nixon's own words "the smoking gun" of his own engagement, including talk of buying the silence of the perpetrators.

Nothing remotely comparable has been suggested in the current political crisis. But the Baker question is relevant for what it says about the protective shield that seems to have been thrown up around Obama about the workings of his own administration.

No president can possibly be kept informed of everything going on in the vast bureaucracy that is his domain. But the supposedly astute political Obama operation should have recognized the potential for trouble in the IRS policing of the conservative applicants for tax relief.

Efforts to protect presidents from political fallout in bureaucratic shenanigans is nothing new, regardless of party affiliation. In the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was represented as unaware of underlings' dealings that swapped U.S. arms to Israel for financial aid guerilla forces fighting insurgents in Nicaragua, in violation of a congressional prohibition.

Now Barack Obama seems often to be treated by his own subordinates as too engaged in lofty policy objectives to be bothered with information that may divert his concentration. The art or alibi of deniability is a convenient way to brush aside allegations of ignorance or insufficient attention to the task of keeping the bureaucracy on the rails.

It's a risky business for any president hoping to maintain public confidence, and particularly so for one who came to the Oval Office so young and with little discernible executive experience in or out of government. That political vulnerability was exploited to some degree by presidential primary foe Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Also, Obama's willingness especially in his first term to leave much of the nitty-gritty of negotiation to Congress on legislative proposals, along with his personal aloofness, often created an impression of disengagement. In a sense, it was a bad rap for a president working a heavy daily schedule while also taking on repeated political assignments in fund-raising and rallying the faithful.

But especially in light of the endless bombardment from congressional Republicans openly committed to blunt his initiatives at every turn, the impression was left of a palace guard around Obama steeled to ward off all manner of incoming political fire.

The other two elements of the current assault on his credibility -- his Justice Department leak-sleuthing against Associated Press reporters and the administration responses in the Benghazi terrorist attacks -- also have raised the old Howard Baker question of what the president knew and when he knew it.

The Harry Truman admonition that the buck stops at the president's desk still ultimately holds true. If presidential aides for one reason or another try to save him from more bad news or another administration screw-up down the line, they will flirt with more serious political trouble ahead.

A president saying he didn't know what was going on is music to critics' ears. Obama can ill afford a repetition if he hopes to get back on the offensive for the three years left to him in the Oval Office.


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The Buck Stops Short | Politics