Race trumps jobs as White House message is obscured again

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs received about 20 questions on the Wall Street reform bill the day President Obama signed the landmark legislation. 

In the same briefing, Gibbs fielded close to 100 questions from reporters about the saga of Shirley Sherrod and race relations in America.

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Wednesday’s detour for the White House represents a pattern that has frustrated Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers in Obama’s party for months have asked the White House to focus on jobs and the economy, the issues dominating the campaign season. But the White House has had trouble putting out a consistent message on the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds. 

Much of the reason has been out of the administration’s control.

After healthcare reform was approved, Democrats hoped Obama would be able to focus on jobs for the rest of the year. But at the end of April, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, and the ensuing spill required most of the administration’s time and messaging.

The administration is now being distracted by a problem of its own creation. The White House has acknowledged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was wrong to fire Sherrod over her comments about race that were included in a video posted on a conservative website. The White House says the comments were taken out of context in the short video and that USDA should not have acted so quickly.

On Thursday, Sherrod continued to dominate the news as Obama called the former USDA employee to express his regrets. 

Gibbs got more than 50 questions about Sherrod and race relations at Thursday’s White House briefing, and fewer than 20 about the economy. 

He visibly bristled when asked whether the Sherrod matter was knocking the White House off of its message on the economy, saying flatly: “No.”

Paul Begala, a former strategist to President Clinton, said that constantly getting knocked out message by events outside of the White House must be “demoralizing” for Obama’s aides.

“They worked for two years to get comprehensive landmark financial reform, and it gets blown out of the news,” he said.

But Begala said people in the White House he has talked to in recent days “don’t seem bitter or defensive. They seem humble.”

“You have to have that North Star that is your agenda, but you also have to be nimble,” Begala said.

This isn’t the first time the divisive topic of race has knocked Obama’s White House off message. 

Exactly one year ago Thursday, Obama in a press conference opined that a white Massachusetts police officer acted “stupidly” when he arrested black Harvard Law Professor Henry Louis Gates for trying to break into his own home.

Obama’s comment dominated the airwaves for days after a primetime press conference that was designed to make his case for healthcare reform.

Gibbs said Thursday that Obama will be more visible and active in pushing for Congress to approve a small-business package that serves as the final part of a three-bill strategy Senate Democrats and Obama adopted after a meeting last week. 

Along with the Wall Street reform bill and an unemployment benefits extension Obama signed Thursday, the small-business package is supposed to provide ammunition for Democrats on the campaign trail.