Is Eric Holder Really a Liability for Obama?

When it comes to the attorney general, the definition of justice is in the eye of the beholder.

Attorney General Eric Holder (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Attorney General Eric Holder (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Back in Obama’s first month in office, Holder immediately swerved out of his lane while giving a Black History Month speech, remarking that “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” He had a valid point, but one that wasn’t the brand-new attorney general’s job to state — especially since it stepped all over the conciliatory racial frame that his boss was trying to set.

Last year, Fortune’s Katherine Eban debunked overblown conspiracy accusations in the “Fast and Furious” case. But that didn’t put the brakes on the controversy in time to save Holder and his top deputies from having to express their “regret” and formally withdraw a 2011 letter to Congress that contained inaccurate details about their investigation.

Earlier this year, it looked as if Holder relished his televised joust with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over the government’s power to use armed drones. But after he penned a fairly nuanced letter (pdf) to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), challenging the view that there was essentially no conceivable circumstance under which drones might properly be used domestically, Holder reversed course and conceded the point in another letter just three days later (pdf).

And although opinions differ on the merits of all these issues, no matter where you stand, it’s hard not to conclude that Holder has consistently made a hash out of the politics.

Which means that he’s not fully doing his job, because while bureaucrats at every level carry out policy, it’s the top man’s job to set the tone for how policies are carried out. And that includes being an effective spokesman on behalf of the Justice Department and the president; he’s not just some highly placed minister deciding whose email to intercept.

It’s the difference between being the proverbial sheriff and the proverbial deputy.

And recently, in the Fox News brouhaha, the Daily Beast’s Daniel Klaidman reports that the attorney general may have begun to feel “a creeping sense of personal remorse” for what appears to be overzealous pursuit of a journalist’s emails, calls and whereabouts.

But then why go that route to begin with?

If he has concluded that the ability of his Justice Department to stay on top of security leaks takes precedence over press freedom, then he should stick by, and explain, that position.

If, however, in the Fox case, Holder now thinks he walked too close to the line of criminalizing investigative journalism, then he needs to seriously rethink his approach.

Because every administration misstep has “helped its critics” slow down Obama’s agenda. And no matter how much trust the president has in his attorney general, the more Holder is seen as a drag on that agenda, he’ll increasingly be a liability in the president’s cabinet.