Heaping one criticism after another on the president of the United States is common practice in American political culture. Not every judgement is warranted; a great deal of the animosity that engulfs the current political environment is the result of the hyper-polarization of Washington. But, regardless of whether criticisms are deserved or are simply the byproduct of events way beyond the president’s control, no executive gains praise for “passing the buck.” That term, popularized by President Harry S. Truman, who kept by his desk in the Oval Office a sign reading “the buck stops here,” refers to the act of attributing blame or responsibility to another party, rather than oneself. By keeping that sign by his desk, Truman essentially told the public that, as president, he would not shift blame to his political opponents or others in his administration. By comparison, President Barack Obama has a tendency to claim he had no knowledge of impending problems or that he underestimated their severity.
Of course, for his opponents, who track the instances he says he “didn’t know” or “underestimated,” Obama’s rhetoric has become a rallying point. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who has a particularly acrimonious relationship with the president, tallied key instances in which the president claimed he underestimated the problems plaguing the United States, from the economy to the terrorist group ISIL. “The way President Obama sees it, he’s never wrong. What may appear to be his mistakes or failures are really just a series of misunderstandings and underestimates,” argued Boehner in a September press release.
There is no arguing those phrases — “we didn’t know” and “we underestimated” — stand among the most hackneyed explainers used by the Obama White House. But Boehner has an interest in painting the president in a negative light — and because the House Speaker’s critique has political motivations, as do all in Washington, his list bears examination.