WASHINGTON, D.C. — At a news conference in a rainy Rose Garden on Thursday, President Barack Obama and the Turkish prime minister had weighty matters to discuss — the bloody civil war in Syria, a disastrous Syrian refugee crisis and Turkey’s strained relationship with Israel. But before they got too far into that, Obama had something else to say.
“With the prime minister’s permission, I want to make one other point,” Obama said, launching into an appeal for Congress to support more money for embassy security — a not-so-subtle reply to Republicans who’ve pounced on the president’s handling of last year’s attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
The remark signaled how Obama and his aides have decided to respond to the pounding they have taken in recent days as three controversies have threatened to interfere with his second-term agenda. The White House has tried to showcase Obama as a pragmatic leader taking decisive action, contrasting him with what the president’s aides see as a Washington establishment obsessed with scandal.
“My concern is making sure that, if there’s a problem in the government, that we fix it,” Obama said, one of five times he used the word “fix” in his comments.
Signs of the strategy have been large and small, touching each of the controversies that have dominated the news cycles of the last week.
On Wednesday, administration officials announced support for a law to shield the news media from at least some subpoenas in criminal investigations, a move to deflect criticism from liberals over a federal prosecutor’s decision to seize telephone records of Associated Press reporters.
Then the White House released 99 pages of emails related to the Benghazi attack, aimed at proving wrong those who claimed the administration had politicized the event.
Little more than an hour later, Obama appeared in the East Room to announce on live television that he had pushed out the acting IRS commissioner, seeking to show he would move quickly to straighten out the tax agency after an inspector general’s report released Tuesday concluded that it had inappropriately targeted conservative groups.
On Thursday, in addition to his remarks on embassy security, Obama appointed a new acting commissioner to take over at the Internal Revenue Service and made his first comments on the AP subpoenas. Obama said he respected press freedom, but defended aggressive investigations of leaks as necessary to protect American personnel overseas, saying, “I make no apologies.”
The president also sought to demonstrate he was handling other crises that were nearly overlooked, gathering top military brass at the White House after a report estimated that 26,000 military members were sexually assaulted in unreported incidents last year.
The moves came after pressure from Democrats outside the White House. Many feared that the president’s Mr. Cool approach would not overcome the familiar churn of the Washington scandal machine.
One Democratic strategist, who asked not to be identified to preserve relations with the administration, said early in the week that he called a senior administration official to find out when the West Wing was going to come out fighting. “They didn’t want to get out ahead of the facts,” he said, was the answer he got.
Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman, defended the White House response. “They took their time,” he said. “They reviewed the IG’s report, they declassified the emails, they got their facts together. They didn’t care about one 24-hour news cycle.”
The game of scandal response is relatively new to a White House that prides itself on its low blood pressure and control of the news cycle. White House aides privately vented about the frustration of feeling unable to push their message, set the record straight or change the subject.
The White House has since tried to thaw the chill with the media. On Wednesday, Press Secretary Jay Carney tried to lighten the tone at his briefing with a self-effacing joke and reference to a viral video mocking his frequent use of the phrase “I appreciate the question” for questions he doesn’t especially appreciate. Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, who rarely does television interviews, also appeared on CNN on Thursday to urge Democrats and Republicans to come together to “fix the problem.”
Other surrogates will be pushing the message soon. As the president spoke to the media in the Rose Garden on Thursday, a who’s who of Democratic spin-masters and veterans of scandals past met inside with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Pfeiffer. Former Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry, Clinton speechwriter Don Baer and Tad Devine, who was an adviser to Vice President Al Gore, huddled with others for what participants said was an occasional get-together.
“This is what passes for a scandal these days?” quipped one longtime Democratic strategist.
The president’s attempt to change the subject included his meeting at the White House with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss sexual harassment in the military. The subject gained credence not only because of the report on undisclosed assaults but also because of the sexual abuse investigations of two servicemen who coordinated sexual assault prevention programs.
The media were allowed in for photos and his comments.
Obama said sexual assault in the military was “not a sideshow,” a label his advisers use to describe the controversy over the Benghazi talking points, and he assured military leaders he would be working on the issue.
“There’s no silver bullet to solving this problem,” Obama said. “This is going to require a sustained effort over a long period of time.”
It’s not yet clear whether the newfound strategy will turn the tide for the White House. Republicans on Capitol Hill did not let up after the release of the Benghazi emails, saying the documents did not back up the White House version of events. “If the White House wants to get out of hot water they should just start being candid,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.
Some Obama partisans, however, are relieved, said Neera Tanden, president of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress. “Most people, most Democrats, think they turned the corner,” she said.