Remember what President Obama said about the economy Thursday on his ballyhooed trip to Austin, Texas?
Don’t worry. Hardly anybody else remembers, either.
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.”
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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.
“One thing they could do to dig their way out of this is to get a bipartisan agreement on something big — entitlement reform, or tax reform that doesn’t increase taxes,” said John Feehery, president of communications at Quinn Gillespie and Associates in Washington. “He’s got to really try to go into deal mode and get some accomplishments that can dig him out of this morass.”
Mr. Feehery, who was a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, also predicted that congressional Republicans will help Mr. Obama unwittingly by overreaching in their investigations of the administration.
“That’s what always happens, especially with Republicans,” he said.
Whether or not Republicans turn overzealous, there is some evidence that their hearing on Benghazi last week caught the public’s attention. The Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan group in Washington, analyzed news coverage in the months after the Sept. 11 attack and compared it with news reports in two weeks leading up to the House hearing. The group said the Republicans’ efforts brought “more balance” to the story.
The center found that since House Republicans released a preliminary report on Benghazi on April 24, 58 percent of sources in major newspapers have faulted the Obama administration’s response to the attacks. In the months immediately after the attack, the analysis said, the news media were four times more likely to report the administration’s discredited claims that the Benghazi assault grew out of a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islam video rather than a terrorist attack.
Mr. Feehery said the administration’s loss of control over its message on the president’s agenda is typical for second-term presidents rapidly confronting lame-duck status.
“You get a real arrogance of power,” he said. “He thinks he’s got power, but every day their power diminishes. I think their guard gets down.”
Mr. Feehery thinks there is worse to come for the administration as it tries to implement the president’s health care law in the wake of the IRS controversy.
“That’s the real scandal — big government,” he said. “It’s the idea that people don’t trust their government. You have the IRS doing these things, and then you’re going to have all these agencies basically breaking the news to people that their health insurance premiums are going to increase by 300, 400 percent. That’s going to make [Mr. Obama] very, very unpopular.”