What doesn’t the president know?

During Watergate, the late Sen. Howard Baker framed the definitive question for any scandal that encroaches on the White House: “What did the president know and when did he know it?” Four decades later in the Obama era, that question has to be reformulated: “What else doesn’t the president know and why doesn’t he know it?”

The national debt is a fairly substantial issue. President Obama once considered it important enough to appoint a special bipartisan commission that only two years ago, in its final report, flatly stated, “The era of debt denial is over.” Yet when the president sat down for a hard-hitting interview on “The Late Show with David Letterman” two months ago, he had no clue about the debt.

“Now, do you remember what that number was? Was it $10 trillion?” Letterman asked. “I don’t remember what the number was precisely,” Obama responded. “We don’t have to worry about it short term,” he added.

The number, of course, is actually $16 trillion – it was close to $10 trillion when President Obama took office. That he could be so uninformed about one of the most critical economic issues of the day, and that he could dismiss its significance, was nothing short of stunning.

So it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when the president claims he didn’t know anything about the two latest scandals encroaching on the Obama White House. Why should the president have known anything about Benghazi? After all, it was only an American ambassador under siege for seven hours, during which CIA operatives on the ground requested reinforcements while a Predator drone provided real-time surveillance.

The New York Times reported “about a dozen CIA operatives and contractors” were present in Benghazi, possibly the largest CIA presence in the region, and Benghazi isn’t even Libya’s capital or largest city. Shouldn’t the president have known what they were doing? By one account, the U.S. mission in Benghazi was executing a secret order from the president – reported by Reuters in August – to coordinate support for Syrian rebels.

Since official U.S. policy is to deny such a role, you can understand why President Obama would have no knowledge or interest in Benghazi. By another account, provided by Petraeus paramour Paula Broadwell in a speech last month, the CIA was holding prisoners in Benghazi. Since one of President Obama’s first acts in the Oval Office was to close all CIA detention facilities, you can understand again why – officially at least – he wouldn’t want to know about Benghazi.

Then there’s the Petraeus scandal itself. Is it remotely possible that the FBI conducted a months-long investigation of the CIA director, an investigation about which FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder were aware but failed to share with the president? Is it conceivable that one of the nation’s top national security officials was subject to blackmail and his personal emails had been compromised without anyone thinking the commander in chief should know?

The conspiracy-minded will find in all this a dazzling web of lies. But there’s a more plausible yet equally damning explanation. As with the debt, the president just doesn’t want to know anything that might discomfit him, and he’s surrounded himself with yes men who are willing to oblige his need to be untroubled and untouched by damaging information – no matter the cost.

Contact Gurwitz, a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, at jgurwitz@express-news.net.