Scandals drown out Obama’s message on economy

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Remember what President Obama said about the economy Thursday on his ballyhooed trip to Austin, Texas?

Don’t worry. Hardly anybody else remembers, either.


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In hindsight, the most remarkable aspect of Mr. Obama’s “middle-class jobs and opportunity tour” is that he began it 24 hours before what was arguably the worst day of his second term. On Friday, the scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service became public and more revelations surfaced about the administration’s efforts to downplay the role of terrorism in the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Whatever attention the media had been paying to Mr. Obama’s economic plans suddenly evaporated. With another controversy erupting this week about the Justice Department’s wide-ranging probe of news media, the president isn’t likely to regain control of his message when he travels to Baltimore on Friday for the second installment of his jobs tour.

“There’s absolutely no way they’re going to get out a positive message this week, or maybe next week, on what they’re doing to move their agenda,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “There’s no clear sky, only a stormy weather pattern, that surrounds this White House.”

Even some Democrats are openly questioning whether the president’s new leadership team is capable of managing the administration’s message discipline during the rapid succession of scandals. Lanny Davis, who was a counselor to President Clinton, has said Mr. Obama’s “crisis-management communications team is absent without leave.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that Mr. Obama accepts responsibility for the series of controversies, although the president and others in his administration have blamed congressional Republicans for a partisan probe into Benghazi and have said they were unaware of the Justice and IRS actions until recently.

In a White House statement issued Tuesday evening, the president called the IRS targeting of conservative groups “intolerable and inexcusable.”

After reading a watchdog report on the IRS scandal, Mr. Obama said he has directed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to “hold those responsible for these failures accountable, and to make sure that each of the inspector general’s recommendations are implemented quickly, so that such conduct never happens again.”

Still, there is little doubt that the events of the past week have put the administration in a defensive posture. In one exchange with reporters Tuesday, Mr. Carney’s blanket defense of the White House in the IRS controversy melted in a matter of minutes.

Asked by a reporter whether he could state “categorically” that nobody at the White House or on the president’s political team knew or was involved in the IRS targeting of tea party groups, Mr. Carney said “yes” firmly. But about 20 minutes later, another reporter asked how Mr. Carney could be “unequivocal” about no White House involvement while he was arguing that the White House didn’t have all the facts about the case.

Mr. Carney replied that he had “no reason to believe” anyone on the president’s team was involved with the IRS matter. Asked whether he was basing his belief on “good faith,” Mr. Carney then said, “I am not aware of anyone here knowing about it.”

Pressed again by the reporter how he knew nobody at the White House was involved in the IRS situation, Mr. Carney retreated further.

“I think I can say that I feel confident in that,” he said.

Political strategists say it will be difficult for the president to pull himself out of this predicament and regain control of the message promoting his second-term agenda.

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