Posted on May 20, 2013 in Washington Watch
We have, of late, been inundated with press accounts declaring that the Obama Administration is in real trouble. Headlines scream: "Obama struggles", "White House dysfunction", or, worse still, asking "Has Obama Lost Washington?" One would get the sense that the Administration is unraveling.
There can be no doubt that this has been a bad week, but it's not as disastrous as the president's critics would have it.
To understand the dynamic that set in motion this avalanche of bad press, two metaphors are helpful. The first comes from former Senator Eugene McCarthy who was fond of comparing Washington's political press to crows on a high wire. "When one lands" he would say, "they all land. And when one takes off, they all take off". It is an apt description for the "feeding frenzies" that can occur in our political world when reporters and politicos, like sharks, smell blood in the water (the other metaphor) and move in to devour their wounded prey.
In the toxic environment that is Washington, stories grow and become larger than themselves, and in the ensuing hysteria, all sense of proportion can be lost. Such has been the case with the Congressional hearings into the way the White House handled the deaths of four US officials in Benghazi. The story has been exaggerated to such an extent that a recent poll shows 41% of Republicans now say that Benghazi is the "biggest scandal in US history", and former Vice President Cheney claiming that Benghazi is "one of the worse incidents, frankly, that I can recall". That there is less to this entire affair than meets the eye doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that this Benghazi "scandal" pales in comparison to the lies that dragged the US into the Iraq war. What matters to the press is the perception that they have created for themselves—that this is a "big story" revealing "dark truths" about the Obama Administration and its failures.
Add to this other recent allegations about the Internal Revenue Service targeting some Tea Party and "patriot" groups for special scrutiny, and the Department of Justice using its Bush-era anti-terrorism powers to investigate reporters who received "leaked" information about a CIA operation in Yemen, and you have Republicans hyperventilating in excitement and the media in a frenzy.
I might suggest that we first take a deep breath and make an effort to put the events of the past week in some perspective, but I know it wouldn't do any good. There is blood in the water and in deeply partisan Washington, the struggle for advantage and power always trumps reality.
Even if I wanted to ascribe the best of intentions to the Republicans who are pushing the Benghazi story, I find it difficult to do so. If they were truly concerned about "lies" that were told by government officials, the failure of an Administration to protect American lives, and the need for responsible government officials to be transparent and accountable for their actions, the place for Congress to begin would be with the Iraq war or with the Bush Administration's systematic use of torture, rendition, and other practices that violate our own and international laws.
But, of course, this entire enterprise of "getting to the bottom of Benghazi" has nothing to do with truth, lives, or accountability. The Obama Administration's release of interagency communications, if anything, establishes nothing more than the somewhat banal practice of language vetting that, while annoying at times, has become rather standard practice.
No, in the end, this is not about truth or governance. It is, in fact, nothing more than a continuation of the five year long effort to weaken and distract the president, in order to gain advantage over Democrats, and, in this instance, to wage a preemptive strike against former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's presidential aspirations (should she have any).
As for the IRS and Department of Justice stories, they are problems, to be sure, but problems that do not implicate the president. If anything, these revelations have given the president the opportunity to demonstrate his determination to respond quickly and decisively. He immediately condemned both as abuses of power and acted to remove the head of the IRS who was responsible.
All this, the pundits say, could not have come at a worse time for the president. As conventional wisdom has it, the administration has a limited window of opportunity remaining in which to push through its second term agenda: immigration reform, responsible gun control measures, a new budget that continues to grow the economy while reining in deficits, and facing down foreign policy challenges, especially those raging across the Middle East. In this view, by next year the country will be in the throes of Congressional elections with "every man for himself" and Democrats running in close contests wanting to dissociate themselves from a weakened White House. In this environment, Republicans hope that Democrats will be less inclined to support the president's agenda if it doesn't fit their reelection calculations. Following these November, 2014 contests, the President truly becomes a lame duck as the country heads toward the 2016 presidential elections. This is the conventional wisdom, and it is what has Republicans gleefully putting forth, and the press echoing and amplifying, the notion that the president is "finished".
Two observations are in order. The first is that while Obama has had a bad week, it pales in comparison with his predecessors' second term woes. Clinton had to deal with a trumped-up impeachment process and Bush faced national scorn for his disastrous handing of hurricane Katrina and the unraveling of his Iraq war. These were, by any measure, far more serious challenges. Clinton not only survived impeachment, but was buoyed by a robust economy. And Bush, with his "smoke and mirrors" "surge" operation in Iraq, was able to rebound a bit until the economic collapse of 2008.
It will not be easy, but what President Obama will now do is work to regain control of the story being told in the daily press accounts emanating from Washington. The still recovering economy will help, but it won't be dramatic enough to turn the tide. Nor can he count on Congress to support him with passage of key elements of his agenda. With or without "scandal", partisanship will continue to win out, with Republicans loathe to give the White House any meaningful victories.
The president will need to reestablish control by executive decisions in areas of domestic or foreign policy where he can demonstrate leadership by acting independently and decisively. Should he succeed, the shenanigans in Congress will be reduced to a sideshow. And the nation's press, a la McCarthy's metaphor, will follow the story he is creating.
All in all, it may have been a bad week, but it is one the White House can survive.