It’s no secret that the Obama Administration has been suffering some embarrassments lately. Specifically, it has been suggested that Obama did not know of Healthcare.gov’s many structural problems, nor did he know that the NSA was tapping the phone of foreign officials like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This raises a few concerns. First of all, shouldn’t the chief executive of the U.S. know about something as serious as tapping the phones of the world’s leaders? Or huge functional problems for the roll out of his signature piece of legislation? On one hand, this plausible deniability helps the president save face, particularly when it comes to dealing with angry foreign leaders. On the other hand, not knowing about these issues can make the president look weak and seem like he’s not in control. In an interview with Rachel Maddow, author Ron Suskind described the role of plausible deniability in these kinds of issues. He described a situation in which a staffer would tell the president about a conversation Merkel had. The president then knows not to ask how this information was obtained so he can maintain deniability if he was ever questioned about the incidents.
So, is this a common practice? Is this “I don’t know” strategy sustainable? Well, research shows that despite the presidents’ have limited capacity and influence for solving the nation’s problems, people have increasingly demanded that the president be responsive to their needs. The study also finds that people with less political knowledge are more likely to blame the mot obvious political actor (the president) than other parties who could share responsibility for the policy misstep. (1) In this era of increased pressure and expectation on the president, how will the President survive these apparent executive mishandlings?
Reagan’s handling of the Iran Contra Affair is a good example of a president claiming he didn’t know what his staff was doing in the face of a scandal. Pfiffner’s analysis characterized Reagan’s leadership style as “setting broad directions and leaving the implementation of policies to his subordinates.” This style led to a situation in which Reagan was simultaneously declaring the United States didn’t negotiate with terrorists while insisting that his aides support the Contras. These mixed messages combined with a hands off leadership style led to Reagan’s staff selling arms to Iran and diverting the profits to send to the Contras. So, did Reagan know? Pfiffner doesn’t believe so. Reagan escaped impeachment because of plausible deniability. Admiral John Poindexter, Reagan’s national security advisor, testified that he was certain of Reagan’s position on supporting the Contras. Pfiffner writes “Poindexter was so certain that he said that he ‘made a deliberate decision not to ask the president so that I could insulate him from the decision and provide some future deniability if it ever leaked out.’ Poindexter maintained that Reagan ‘would have approved the decision at the time if I had asked him.'” (2) Despite the fact that Reagan clearly told his aides to support the Contras, his failure to inquire further as to how they were planning to do so was a problem, but was also what saved Reagan from legal consequences.
In the case of the NSA listening to the conversations of heads of friendly nations, it’s easy to see how a similar situation may have unfolded. This can perhaps apply to healthcare.gov as well. This healthcare initiative was the reason the government was shutdown. With that kind of pressure, it’s easy to see why the staff working on the site wouldn’t be forthcoming with large structural problems. Having just waged a war with opponents in Congress over concerns with the law, perhaps Obama was just an uneasy to inquire as to the technological aspects of the site. We may perhaps never know whether Obama knew about healthcare.gov, but it begs the question — is it better that the law remained funded and then the site’s problems were revealed, or should they have been exposed earlier and faced extra scrutiny during budget debates? And similarly, was the info retrieved from the conversations of heads of states around the world worth the (probably) temporary setback in foreign relations for President Obama? That remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that plausible deniability has the capacity to benefit the president in certain situations.