Congressional investigators are asking the old Watergate question – what did the president know and when did he know it – about the Internal Revenue Service's improper targeting of conservative groups for special scrutiny when they sought tax-exempt status.
But the startling revelation of the past 24 hours is the opposite concern – what the president didn't know and how long he didn't know it. And therein lies a big problem for the White House.
It turns out that senior White House officials intentionally kept the president in the dark, even though the IRS misconduct was sure to be a major controversy that could seriously damage his administration and undermine trust in government.
Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday that a number of key advisers knew that the IRS was investigating the potential misconduct, including White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who was informed a month ago, and White House legal counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, who learned of it April 24.
But Carney defended keeping the president ignorant of the potential scandal. "It is entirely appropriate that the president not be notified," of such an ongoing investigation, he said.
Obama has insisted that he learned of the potential scandal from the news media last week.
It's all part of the isolation of the presidency that I write about in my new book, "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership."
Even though President Obama tries to stay in touch with the country beyond the Washington Beltway, he is surrounded, as all presidents are, by idolizers who try to shield him. History shows that no matter how much a president urges his staff to speak candidly to him, there is always a tendency for the staff to protect him instead.
The current situation appears to be a case study of a White House staff shielding a president from negative and unsettling news that he should have known about.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.