In his first Inaugural Address, President Obama famously said that we should not ask “whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” I criticized this indifference to the size of government in one of my very first posts of the Obama Presidency. More recently, however, longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod recognized that the size of government does matter after all:
As the nation’s chief executive, President Obama is accountable for the IRS, State Department and Justice Department. His longtime adviser David Axelrod last week blamed a too-big government for the scandals: “Part of being president is that there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.” [HT: Don Boudreaux]
In my 2009 post on Obama’s Inaugural Address and in a forthcoming book, I explained that one of the dangers of big government is that rationally ignorant voters are unable to effectively monitor its activities. A closely related problem is that the modern federal government is also too large for the president to effectively monitor – even with the help of topnotch advisers like Axelrod.
Axelrod’s defense of Obama is actually very plausible. It is quite possible that Obama didn’t know about the IRS’ abusive targeting of conservative groups, and that if he had known he would have ordered them to stop – if only to forestall a scandal that might become a dangerous political liability. Yet Obama probably didn’t know because, as Axelrod puts it, “the government is so vast” that he could not possibly keep track of what it was doing.
In fairness to Obama, much of the government growth that makes his job so difficult occurred on his predecessor’s watch. The current administration is far from solely responsible for the overgrown size of modern government. But the president would be entitled to greater sympathy if he hadn’t spent much of the last four years expanding the size of government even further, and claiming that we shouldn’t worry about its growth.
UPDATE: This recent Washington Post story reports that senior White House officials admit they knew about the IRS abuses in April but claim they did not tell Obama. Even if we decide not to believe their denials on the latter point and conclude that Obama found out at the same time as they did, that still means he was unaware of the problem for over three years, since the targeting of Tea Party groups apparently began in March 2010.