Obama dismisses scandals as ‘phony’

President Obama on Wednesday dismissed a series of controversies dogging his administration as “phony” in remarks that represented a clear shift in White House tactics.

“With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball,” Obama said in an economic address at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

Obama’s comments marked an inflection point in the way the administration has been dealing with a raft of controversies, many of which the White House has previously suggested were substantive.

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Obama on Wednesday did not specify which controversies were “phony,” but the administration has been attacked over National Security Agency surveillance programs leaked to the public, the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups, the Department of Justice’s seizing of media phone records, and last year’s attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

While the White House has repeatedly accused Republicans of seeking to gin up a controversy surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, it had not described the other issues previously as phony.

The president in Galesburg said the GOP’s focus on scandals “needs to stop.”

“Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires,” he said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney telegraphed Obama’s remarks on Tuesday, referring to scandals as “phony” in his press briefing.

Carney also had a heated exchange with MSNBC host Joe Scarborough on Wednesday morning, when he described the IRS controversy as a “phony scandal.”

Scarborough argued the scandal was not phony and noted that some reports said the IRS’s chief counsel office had been notified that agency employees in Cincinnati had been improperly targeted.

Carney then said investigations needed “to get to the bottom of what happened at the IRS.”

Democrats have argued there is evidence the IRS also targeted liberal groups, suggesting it did not single out conservative organizations for extra scrutiny.

The speech at Knox College in Galesburg was intended to bolster sagging public support for Obama, who has seen his approval rating drop as he has dealt with the controversies.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey released Tuesday found the president with a 45 percent approval rating, while half the country said it disapproved of his handling of the job. It’s the lowest rating for the president since November 2011.

Wednesday’s address was intended to change the public conversation to the economy and jobs, an issue where the White House sees an advantage.

Obama declared the nation had “fought its way back” from the depths of the recession in a speech clearly targeting an outside-the-beltway audience.

“As Washington prepares to enter another budget debate, the stakes for our middle class could not be higher,” he said.

The president chided Republicans, who he said privately agreed with some of his proposals but feared “political retaliation.” He also dared leaders in the GOP to come up with their own proposals for how to fix the economy.

“I say to these members of Congress: I am laying out my ideas to give the middle class a better shot. Now, it’s time for you to lay out yours,” Obama said. “You can’t just be against something. You’ve got to be for something. … It’s not just enough for you to oppose me.”

Obama also declared that “we can’t afford to repeat” the “fiasco” that occurred during the 2011 debt-ceiling battle with Republicans.

He repeatedly targeted the “faction of Republicans in the House” that supported automatic spending cuts imposed last year and are threatening a debt-ceiling showdown.

“Rather than reduce our deficits with a scalpel — by cutting programs we don’t need, fixing ones we do, and making government more efficient — this same group has insisted on leaving in place a meat cleaver called the sequester that has cost jobs, harmed growth, hurt our military, and gutted investments in American education and scientific and medical research that we need to make this country a magnet for good jobs,” Obama said.

House Republicans dismissed the president’s remarks, calling them a rehash of previous themes. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) likened the address to “an Easter egg with no candy in it” during a floor speech on Wednesday.

“The president himself said it isn’t going to change any minds,” Boehner said. “All right, well. So exactly what will change? What’s the point? What’s it going to accomplish? 

“You probably got the answer: Nothing.”

Obama acknowledged that “some of these ideas I’ve talked about before,” but accused Republicans of focusing on controversies that distracted from real issues facing the country.

The president said his efforts would focus on five tent poles of the American economy: manufacturing, education, home ownership, retirement and healthcare.

He touched on each in his hour-long address. But the president is expected to flesh out those themes over at least six speeches this summer, including two more this week: a visit to Missouri later Wednesday to highlight a college technology program, and a visit to the port in Jacksonville, Fla., on Thursday.

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, quipped that the takeaway from the president’s address could be, “I’m going to give more speeches.”

Obama did say he would pursue his goals with “whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class.” He also said he would use the bully pulpit to encourage private industry to aid in his recovery programs.

“Where I can’t act on my own, and Congress isn’t cooperating, I’ll pick up the phone and call CEOs, and philanthropists, and college presidents — anybody who can help — and enlist them in our efforts,” Obama said.

But the president also said he was hopeful that his address would help refocus the nation’s attention on growing the economy.

“I will not allow gridlock, inaction or willful indifference to get in our way,” Obama said.

Remarks of President Barack Obama

— Published at 1:20 p.m. and updated at 8:39 p.m.