In 1945 President Harry Truman had a sign placed on his desk in the White House that read, “The Buck Stops here!” Truman also used the phrase in speeches he gave between 1945 and his final address to the Nation in 1953.
During his farewell address Truman explained why he used the phrase. “The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”
As Truman indicated, “the buck stops here” derives from the expression, “passing the buck”, which means dumping responsibility on someone else. In this century, we call passing the buck the blame game, as in anyone’s fault but mine.
A lot of other things have changed in the last 69 years, like the professional sense of responsibility for the actions of those who work for you. President Obama tried to blame the current ISIS crisis on his National Intelligence Director, James Clapper. He criticized Clapper for downplaying the ISIS threat for too long.
Apparently, in castigating Clapper, Obama is trying to walk back his heavily disparaged “jayvee team” remark made in January of this year. But, he has stumbled badly. Critics have been quick to point out that, based on publically released assessments over the years, Obama had to have understood the threat.
Yet, the President allowed ISIS to grow in strength because appropriate action came with significant political risk. The recent beheadings finally tipped the political scale and Obama acted.
The President is not alone in his anyone-but-me mantra. Hillary Clinton tried a hybrid approach over her involvement in the Benghazi attack – “I take responsibility, but I was not making security decisions.” By the time the buck gets to Hillary, it’s only worth a penny or two.
Hillary’s self-assessment is a way of both taking and ducking responsibility in the same breath. It is especially disappointing after her claimed security expertise during the 2008 election. Most of us recall the campaign ad she ran against Obama questioning whom we want in the White House during a 3 am crisis.
To be fair, the Secretary of State wasn’t physically in the White House during the Benghazi attack. She was too busy releasing a fanciful statement tying the attack to an anti-Muslim video.
Then there are the adults in the Obama Administration. During congressional testimony today, Secret Service Director Julia Pierson took full responsibility for recent security failures at the White House. There have been six fence jumpers this year, the last two less than 10 days apart. One of them breached the interior of the White House and was finally tackled by an off duty official in the East Room.
Pierson took a verbal beating from Congress during her testimony. A lot of critics are now calling for her resignation. When the buck stops at the top, it can cost a bundle. The only upside was that none of the intruders were heard to yell, Allahu Akbar.
But, it shouldn’t be only the managers in the Administration who beckon the buck to stop with them. The point Harry Truman was making in 1945 is that the President is the leader of the Nation. That job requires a grown-up sense of responsibility not the infantile reaction of a politician.
If Clapper had been too slow to respond, Obama should have taken responsibility and then addressed the problem with his National Intelligence Director in private. Pass the baby rattle to Barack Obama.