White House tour move backfires on Obama

The White House is playing defense over the decision to cancel tours at President Obama’s residence, the latest stumble for Obama in the messaging war with Republicans over the sequester.

White House press secretary Jay Carney fielded a series of pointed questions Wednesday about why the tours had to be canceled. Emboldened House Republicans also challenged Obama on the issue at a private meeting on Capitol Hill. 

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With Obama’s poll numbers dipping to near 50 percent, Republicans have seized on the issue, criticizing the president for canceling the tours as a stunt to hurt Congress, where lawmakers have long arranged White House tours for their constituents.

Since the decision was announced last week, Obama and administration officials have said the decision was made by the Secret Service — which spends roughly $74,000 a week to allow for the tours — in order to avoid furloughs and other cutbacks necessitated by the sequester’s automatic spending cuts. 

But that explanation backfired, observers say.

“Using the tours to send a message seemed like a surefire winner,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University who specializes in political communication and advertising. “I think the White House was expecting everyone to go ‘Oh, this is so horrible!’ but this time it didn’t play, perhaps because it was too overt.”

Sensing a problem with the canceling of the tours, Obama backed off, saying in an interview Wednesday that the decision wasn’t made by him and that the White House is looking into setting up tours for school groups.

“What I’m asking them is, are there ways, for example, for us to accommodate school groups who may have traveled here with some bake sales,” Obama said. “Can we make sure that kids, potentially, can still come to tour?”

The canceled tours prompted a pointed question to Obama from House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.) during the president’s meeting with House Republicans on Wednesday. Miller asked why Obama put an end to the tours instead of just cancelling the congressional Christmas party or the congressional picnic.

When Obama said the decision was prompted by the Secret Service, some lawmakers groaned in disbelief.

“Now, now, let’s be respectful,” Obama replied.

Carney at Wednesday’s press briefing sought to place responsibility for the decision on the White House, not the Secret Service.

“We had to cancel the tours, it’s our job to cancel the tours,” Carney explained. “[The Secret Service] cannot cancel them … this is not a tour of the Secret Service building. It’s a tour of the White House and the grounds, and we run the tours and the invitations and that process.”

But Carney also blamed Republicans for forcing the sequester to take effect in the first place.

“Let’s go back to the fact that none of this was necessary,” he said. “These choices are all bad. … I think we’re now seeing that there are unhappy results of sequester. It may be a home run in some folks’ eyes, a victory for the Tea Party for some. But it’s bad for America. It’s bad for those who will lose their jobs and those who suffer from diminished economic growth.”

Reporters at the White House briefing returned to the topic when they questioned Carney about how much it would cost Obama to travel to Illinois later in the week.

The White House spokesman responded by saying that Obama travels around the country “appropriately” and that he “has to travel around the world.”

“It’s his job,” Carney said.

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said while the cancellation of the tours is a “headache” for the White House, it could still win the blame game over the sequester as more cuts are felt. 

“People will start to pay attention when they’re in a longer TSA line or if they’re sitting on a tarmac at the airport,” Simmons said. “That’s what will matter.”

So far, polls suggest the administration is not winning the fight.

Nearly two weeks after the sequester was triggered, only a small slice of Americans disapprove of the spending cuts, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll out Wednesday. And nearly three quarters of those surveyed said they haven’t felt the across-the-board cuts.

The poll shows that 47 percent hold Republicans responsible and 33 percent point the finger at Obama.

Some observers blame Obama’s loss of support on a communications failure by the administration, which they said employed scare tactics to push Republicans closer to a deal. In at least one case, the administration later had to pull back.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan had to issue an apology for misspeaking when he claimed that some schools were handing out “pink slips” due to the spending cuts.

“Language is really, really important and I want to apologize for not being as clear as I should have been last week,” Duncan later explained to reporters. “When I said ‘pink slips,’ that was probably the wrong word. I should have used ‘job eliminations,’ ‘positions eliminated,’ ” he said. “We had a little drama. Got it. Lessons learned on all sides. Got it.”

The bottom line, Berkovitz said, is that the public “hasn’t bought that the sequester is this huge asteroid slamming into the economics of this country.

“It seemed like a surefire ploy that wasn’t so surefire,” he said.