Obama on the defensive

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 21, 2013


The last two weeks have been plagued with problems for the Obama administration. Three controversies have kept the White House on the defensive and have delayed legislative progress on key issues central to Obama’s second term. The controversy over the alleged cover-up over the security failures in the Benghazi consulate attack, the polemic over how much the White House about the IRS targeting of conservative groups that were applying for tax-exempt status and the disclosure on the Justice Department probe of Associated Press phone records have put President Obama on the defensive and have given renewed energy to Republicans.  Six months after Obama won re-election, Republicans are on the attack and the White House is struggling to prevent these issues from dominating the political agenda this summer.


Though unexpected problems always threaten a government’s legislative agenda, the ability to successfully manage crises is essential for any administration to be successful. Presidents need a strong management crises team.  A crisis response team must be prepared to isolate the issue, shield the president from any possible involvement and stage a counteroffensive to discredit those who question the administration and minimize the media interest on the story. Because there is an unwritten rule in American politics that the cover-up is always worse than the error or fault, a crisis management team must ensure that the controversy remains about the incident and does not evolve into a polemic over what the White House knew and what it sought to prevent others from learning.


The three controversies are different in nature and scope, but are all potentially dangerous for the Obama administration because they can quickly evolve from isolated incidents into symptoms of a pattern of cover-ups ordered from within the President’s inner circle.


So far, the facts of the three cases should not warrant such speculations. The controversy about the attacks against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, was a key campaign theme for the Republicans in the last presidential election. Though the White House and the State Department were not initially in tandem to explain what had happened in the attacks that resulted in the death of four people, including a U.S. Ambassador, several investigations by Congress, by the State Department and by independent press organizations have largely confirmed the White House version.  That controversy should have been put to rest were it not for the insistence of a few Republican members of the House of Representatives. However, part of the responsibility also lies within the Obama administration.  No new information has surfaced that justifies the additional scrutiny on what actually happened that day and what the White House knew about the attacks and when it learned. Still, suspicions about a possible cover up orchestrated by the Obama administration to protect former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others close to President Obama—like the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice—continue to gain adepts in Washington, and not just among opponents of the administration.


The controversy over the IRS targeting of conservative groups has more unanswered questions, though the scandal will probably remain circumscribed to the IRS office overseeing tax-exempt organizations.  Still, the acting IRS commissioner, Steven T. Millner was already forced to resign.  Rather than downplaying the scandal, President Obama called the alleged unfair targeting of conservative groups “outrageous”.  Because this issues has emboldened Tea Party activists, the Republican Party and conservative news media have seized it and will continue looking for signals that the White House is involved in some form of cover-up or that, at least, White House officials have lied about when they learned about the alleged targeting of conservative groups and about what they did to stop it.


Finally, the controversy over the Justice Department’s probing of phone records of the Associated Press offices in Washington and other American cities will probably not go away soon. News about possible government interference with freedom of the press is always an attractive story for reporters to dig more in depth to find possible ramifications and, obviously, to find out if the White House is either behind the initiative or has helped in the cover-up of the alleged wrong-doing.


The three issues are natural candidates for controversies and are custom-made for the opposition to seize on—especially after a defeat as humiliating as the one Republicans suffered last November. That, in and of itself, is not news.  However, the White House inability to put those issues to rest and the way in which the crisis management strategy of the Obama administration has actually helped to put more fuel into those controversies is indeed becoming the big news behind the three controversies.  The White House finds itself on the defensive not because of the controversies, but because President Obama’s administration has failed to adequately respond to the attacks and questioning. As a result, the White House finds itself between a rock and a hard-place, under constant attack by a reenergized Republican Party only half a year after winning re-election.