Team Obama digs in, fights to get agenda back on track amid scandals

The White House is circling the wagons as one of the most feverish periods of President Obama’s tenure enters its second week.

Obama and his aides have taken a more aggressive stance in recent days after fumbling their initial response to headline-grabbing scandals at different government agencies.


HillTube video: A tough two weeks for Obama


The administration’s strategy is centered on a simple defense: “Our basic thrust is that nobody, here, did anything wrong,” an Obama administration official told The Hill. “That’s why none of this is going to stick.”

Even though there is no evidence yet of wrongdoing in the White House, it does not mean that Obama will emerge scot-free from the furor over the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups, last year’s fatal terrorist attack in Benghazi and the Department of Justice’s seizure of phone records from The Associated Press.

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They all have happened on Obama’s watch. And he has often said, “The buck stops with me.”

At a minimum, the unusual confluence of events provides Republicans with a huge political opportunity and has left Democrats dazed and divided.

The controversies have produced some odd bedfellows. Last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and liberal radio host Bill Press both called for Attorney General Eric Holder to step down, a rare occurrence of such disparate figures singing from the same song sheet. (Press is a columnist for The Hill).

There was also a palpable cooling toward Obama from previously sympathetic media figures. Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart skewered him by noting the number of times he has claimed to learn of troubling news via media reports, while MSNBC’s Chris Matthews assailed the president on similar grounds of passivity.



“He doesn’t like giving orders or giving somebody the power to give orders,” Matthews complained. “He doesn’t seem to like being an executive.”


White House officials brush away such attacks as Acela-corridor chatter — “the sort of ebb and flow of Washington,” as an Obama administration official called it — and contest the idea that the media were ever very favorably disposed toward them in the first place.

They also note that the administration put itself on firmer footing as last week wore on, with the president firing the acting head of the IRS and making an assertive defense of the phone-records issue.

While Team Obama can dismiss Republican opprobrium or media skepticism as D.C. business as usual, complaints by liberal activists about Obama having let them down are harder to dismiss. 

The revelations about the IRS and the targeting of reporters have left some civil libertarians aghast, or at best disenchanted, especially as they are viewed alongside other actions taken on national security grounds.

“It is alarming,” Laura Murphy, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, told The Hill. “The bigger question is whether [Obama] is sensitive to the fact that he campaigned telling people he was going to breathe a new era into the enforcement of civil liberties.”

She added, “These incidents, while taken together with not revealing what the drone policy is or not being able to close Guantanamo, paint a more damning portrait.”

Others who are sympathetic to Obama worry that the controversies have become a deluge at a critical time for the president’s agenda. 

With efforts to tighten gun control having run aground, Democratic hopes are vested heavily in the precarious prospect that broad immigration reform will be enacted. Optimists had been feeling that some movement could be seen on fiscal issues, too.

But now the prospect of a near-endless round of congressional investigations, accompanied by a barrage of angry rhetoric, looms large. 

Already there have been mentions of impeachment from some GOP members, including Reps. Jason Chaffetz (Utah) and Michele Bachmann (Minn.); the promise by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to “stop at nothing” in pursuit of administration wrongdoing; and the grilling of recently-resigned acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller at a combative House Ways and Means Committee hearing Friday.

Chris Lehane, who served in the Clinton White House and was later press secretary for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, argued that none of the controversies afflicting Obama is comparable to the travails seen in some other administrations. 

Referring to the Clinton, Reagan and Nixon presidencies, he said there were scandals “that went to a president’s personal conduct or how the White House was operating writ large. That has not been the case here.”

He cautioned, however, that this does not necessarily mitigate the political risk involved,  and he urged Obama aides to set up a special wing of their communications operation just to fight the day-to-day battles that are sure to come as a result of the scandals.

“The political challenge is the real challenge: Do these issues give the GOP the cover to go off and suck up days, weeks and months?” Lehane said. “That way, they suck up the president’s ability to move forward with his agenda.”

The mere fact that Obama was asked about the Nixon parallels in the Rose Garden on Thursday is troublesome for a president who vowed to change how Washington operates.

Last week, Bob Woodward was pressed on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about whether there was any valid comparison to be made between the two presidencies, to which he responded “not yet” but also said, “It’s a big mess, obviously.” 

On CBS, Bob Schieffer asserted, “This is not the Nixon administration, where you had burglars and people talking about blowing up the Brookings Institution. This is more a case of, is anybody home?”

Still, for a man who famously campaigned on expansive aspirations for “hope” and “change,” a revised badge emblazoned with the legend, “Not as Bad as Nixon” is not one that can be worn with pride.

Meanwhile, political discussion about which of the controversies will prove to be most damaging to Obama is picking up speed.

The AP matter is almost universally regarded as the least toxic, partly because the news media have a shallow reservoir of public sympathy.

“The IRS is the most damaging, but Benghazi should be,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “Benghazi runs against the whole Obama narrative that he crushed al Qaeda, and you’ve got some severe collateral damage to Hillary Clinton.”

Republican consultant and “No Labels” co-founder Mark McKinnon said that the three imbroglios offered “more smoke than fire” but added, “the IRS issue will have some long-range consequences. It confirms the suspicions and paranoia of people prone to believe government has too much power, and it’s particularly problematic that the IRS is so closely tied to the implementation of ObamaCare.”

Variations of McKinnon’s argument are being made often in Washington, but the White House pushes back against them.

“I don’t buy that,” the administration official said. “These things are totally newsworthy and valid points for conversation. But they don’t string together to make a compelling philosophical argument.”

For now, Team Obama will have to satisfy itself with the modest measure of comfort that can be derived from even such limited claims.