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Column: The Harder You Look, the Less You’ll See

Folks, deep breath time. This is not the end of the Obama presidency. It’s a bad stretch with an unfortunate confluence of unfortunate events. None of which will make the first paragraph — not even the first page — of the account of the Obama administration in the history books.

Let’s tick through the trifecta of scandals and what they tell us — about the foibles of this administration, about the hidden operations of bureaucracies, about the modern practice of politics.

Benghazi. With the email chain released, the chief takeaway should be this administration’s remarkable capacity to be its own worst enemy. It has managed to look as if it were executing a cover-up without having anything to cover up. The real scandal of Benghazi remains what previous inquiries concluded — that there were “systemic failures” of leadership resulting in “grossly inadequate” security.

The emails depict the White House playing the entirely appropriate role of mediating a bureaucratic squabble between the CIA and State Department, with the CIA focused on quickly delivering to Congress detailed talking points that emphasized its prior security warnings, and State similarly determined not to take the political fall.

The White House comes off looking rather responsible, which is why it is so puzzling that it has clung so fixedly to a story so demonstrably wrong: that its sole involvement with the infamous talking points was to correct a single word. In this case, the cover-up is worse than the non-crime.

Internal Revenue Service. With the Treasury Department inspector general’s report released, the chief takeaway should be the bureaucracy’s remarkable capacity for incompetence and stupidity. “My question is, who’s going to jail over this scandal?” House Speaker John Boehner thundered last Wednesday. Mr. Speaker, I hate to disappoint you, but no one. Unless we’ve criminalized idiocy, in which case, better start building more prisons.

As I’ve written earlier, there is no excuse for the IRS actions — either targeting conservative groups for special review or misleading Congress about doing so. The president was right, if about 72 hours late, in demanding the resignation of the acting director.

But the IG report offers evidence that this episode is more reflective of an ignorant, recalcitrant and mismanaged bureaucracy than of a sinister political thumb on the tax scales. The IG describes how the low-level workers determining whether the Tea Party and other groups deserved nonprofit status “did not consider the public perception of using politically sensitive criteria” and noted the employees’ “lack of knowledge” about what political activities were permitted under the tax law.

Likewise, it cited “insufficient oversight,” with only the lowest-level managers having “approved references to the tea party in the BOLO listing criteria before it was implemented.” BOLO means Be On the Look Out.

Associated Press leak probe. This one hits close to home and while the Justice Department insists that it subpoenaed the phone records only after exhausting other avenues of investigation, the net it cast — records from more than 20 phone lines used by about 100 journalists — remains incomprehensibly, chillingly broad. How nice for the president to now renew his call for a reporter’s shield law, having previously worked to water down the proposal. Talk about the cow and the barn.

That said, the leak uproar also illustrates the damned-if-you-do nature of modern politics. The critique of President Obama as passive bystander ignores the far more intense — and more justified — critique that would ensue if the White House had intervened in the leak investigation.

Consider: First, the White House is assailed for allegedly condoning or even orchestrating leaks. Had it not conducted a leak investigation, it would have been accused of a cover-up.

Second, having launched a leak investigation, the absolute last thing the White House should do is micro-manage it — indeed, manage it at all. Every White House has strict rules about contacts with the Justice Department about ongoing criminal investigations for precisely the reason that the political people need to stay away from meddling, or appearing to meddle, in criminal probes.

Only in Washington could the administration be guilty of both not taking leaks seriously enough and taking them too seriously.

Bad things happen in second-term presidencies, often in clumps. This is no coincidence; first-term chickens come home to roost in a second. The inevitable arrogance bred by winning re-election never helps. But this bad run demands perspective. Compared to Katrina, Monica Lewinsky or Iran-Contra, these are distractions, highly unfortunate but by no means disastrous.