“There is blood in the water and the sharks are circling,” said Jim Manley, who spent years as the top communications aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) before moving on to a career at a lobbying firm.
“The last thing the White House needs to do is to make any unnecessary quick moves — by making dramatic personnel changes, for example.”
Mike McCurry, who labored as White House Press Secretary for President Bill Clinton during the feverish early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, opted for a different marine metaphor.
“The temptation, when you have some variety of these feeding frenzies, is only to worry about the churning water and not the longer-term horizon,” he said. “The critical thing is to not lose sight of the larger agenda that the president got elected to execute.”
The advice from the likes of Manley and McCurry is finding a receptive audience at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. McCurry recently spoke with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, and came away impressed with the discipline McDonough was instilling in the rest of the staff.
McDonough, as has been widely reported, wants to cap at 10 percent the amount of White House time that gets spent responding to the furors of the moment rather than advancing the president’s broader agenda.
Among other White House staff, solace is taken from a number of factors.
First, they believe that there is no direct link between the president and any of the misbehavior that is being probed.
Second, they contend that the only thing that could truly jeopardize him, or his top aides, is inappropriate meddling in future investigations or those currently underway.
Third, they say that maintaining a steady focus on the large issues of national importance will pay off in the long run.
Obama supporters who have left the White House make similar points.
“There’s a difference between what interests the Washington press corps and what the American people care about,” said Bill Burton, the former Deputy White House Press Secretary who went on to run Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC that supported Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. “As long as the president keeps his head down and keeps working on the issues that matter for the American people, it’ll all work out.”
The most prominent example to date of this approach came with the president’s address on national security on Thursday. The speech was an important one, and on a controversial enough topic, to seize media attention for at least 24 hours. On Sunday, he will travel to the Oklahoma City area to see for himself the devastation wrought by the recent tornado.
From a political perspective, however, such moments provide only the most fleeting respite from near-blanket media coverage of the intensifying probes. The White House has to be patient, Democrats say.
“In the short-term, when things are all a-fire, the best they can do is generate one good picture showing the president doing his work,” McCurry said. “But over time you get back to a higher place on the agenda.”
Another episode last week showed just how unpredictably these stories can unspool, however. Lois Lerner, the IRS official in charge of the tax-exempt division, appeared before the House Oversight Committee, and was expected to simply invoke the protection of the Fifth Amendment and depart.
Instead, she prefaced her “taking of the fifth” with an emphatic profession of her innocence — an approach that some Republicans, including committee chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), asserted might have voided her desire to protect herself from self-incrimination. Issa now says he wants to bring Lerner back before the committee.
Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who previously worked as a top aide for then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), contended that these were the kind of developments that made message management perilous, even from the bully pulpit of the presidency.
Referring to Obama’s team, he asserted, “It is unlikely that they will be able to correct the course by playing damage control because of the capacity for an unexpected turn of events. They could be focusing on deploying a message on Tuesday morning, hoping to get the president back on track. But as they are doing so, another revelation breaks about the IRS probe.
“It is almost impossible,” he added.
Opinion is divided as to how the scandals are likely to affect Obama’s legislative priorities. On one hand, some Democrats express the hope that Republicans have a compelling self-interest to move forward with the big issue of the moment, immigration reform. On the other, conservatives note that the stream of damaging stories has loosened Obama’s leverage.
“Republicans do have an imperative to pursue [immigration reform] but they’ve also now been given an easier pathway to walk away from any negotiation, because the credibility of the president is at an all-time low,” said Hogan Gidley, who worked as communications director for former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (Pa.) 2012 presidential campaign.
“His ability to govern is slipping away minute by minute.”
Democrats protest that there is plenty of time to recover. And they live in hope that the Republicans will make their own mistakes, perhaps engaging in hyperbole and being seen as out of sync with the broader public’s priorities.
Time, they contend, can repair the president’s standing. But there will be turbulent currents to navigate before then.
“The White House has to recognize that the Republicans are prepared to spend the entire summer doing anything but legislating, focusing on one so-called scandal after another,” Manley said.
“They just have to stay focused on the issues, doing what they need to do.”