By Dana Milbank,
It has been a Junius Horribilis for President Obama.
Job growth has stalled, the Democrats have been humiliated in Wisconsin, the attorney general is facing a contempt-of-Congress citation, talks with Pakistan have broken down, Bill Clinton is contradicting Obama, Mitt Romney is outraising him, Democrats and Republicans alike are complaining about a “cascade” of national-security leaks from his administration, and he is now on record as saying that the “private sector is doing fine.”
Could it get any worse?
Early Monday morning, Obama learned that it could. His aides delivered the news to him that his commerce secretary had been cited for a felony hit-and-run after allegedly crashing his car three times over the weekend. In one incident, the previously obscure Cabinet officer apparently rear-ended a Buick, spoke to the car’s occupants, then hit the vehicle again as he left.
Thus did Jay Carney, the oft-besieged White House press secretary, have another briefing carjacked by bad news. And Carney, who either didn’t know the details of the bizarre episode or wasn’t at liberty to divulge them, had to execute a full range of defensive maneuvers.
“I can simply tell you that he was engaged, as has been reported, in a couple of traffic incidents,” Carney began, as if the secretary, John Bryson, had been photographed by a speed camera or two. Bryson “suffered a seizure, was hospitalized. But beyond that I’ll refer you to Commerce for the details.”
“Is the secretary healthy and fit to serve?” inquired Ben Feller of the Associated Press.
“I would refer you to the Commerce Department.”
Ann Compton of ABC News asked whether the White House chief of staff, who spoke to Bryson, considers the incident serious.
“I don’t have a specific response to give you,” Carney said.
CNN’s Brianna Keilar asked about “the timing of the seizure in relation to the accident.”
“I would refer you, as I said in the past, to the Department of Commerce,” Carney answered.
“I’ve been asking them for hours,” Keilar protested.
“I think I would refer you to the Commerce Department,” was Carney’s rote reply.
The former journalist informed the questioners that he “was not a presiding doctor on this case” and could confirm only that “the commerce secretary was alone, he had a seizure, he was involved in an accident.”
“He was involved in several accidents,” called out April Ryan of American Urban Radio.
“Thank you for the correction,” Carney said. He did not sound grateful.
Carney’s non-defense doesn’t suggest much job security for Bryson, who, depending on what caused the episode Saturday, has either a medical problem or a legal problem.
For the White House, it was just the latest entry in the when-it-rains-it-pours ledger. This has been one of the worst stretches of the Obama presidency. In Washington, there is a creeping sense that the bottom has fallen out and that there may be no second term. Privately, senior Obama advisers say they are no longer expecting much economic improvement before the election.
Carney had the unenviable task of confronting the full arsenal of gloom at Monday afternoon’s briefing.
The AP asked about the president’s unfortunate private-sector-is-fine remark. The Reuters correspondent asked about the economic “head winds” from Europe. Ed Henry of Fox News Channel asked about the looming contempt-of-Congress vote against Attorney General Eric Holder. Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News asked about the Supreme Court striking down Obamacare. Norah O’Donnell of CBS News asked about calls for a special prosecutor to probe leaks. Victoria Jones of Talk Radio News asked about the stalled talks with Pakistan.
Carney sought relief by calling on TV correspondents from swing states, but the one from Wisconsin asked about the failed attempt to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the one from Nevada asked about her state’s unemployment rate, the nation’s highest.
Mostly, though, questions veered back to the commerce secretary’s motoring.
AP Radio’s Mark Smith asked whether Bryson “is now on medical leave.”
“I would refer you to the Commerce Department.” (Eight hours later, Carney issued a statement saying that Bryson was indeed taking such a leave.)
Ryan asked about “mandatory physicals” for Cabinet nominees.
“I don’t have any details about that.”
A New York Daily News correspondent asked if Obama has confidence in Bryson staying on the job with a “felony rap.”
This one Carney answered — by not answering. “He is concerned about Secretary Bryson’s health and broadly about the incident,” the spokesman said — in marked contrast to the “absolute confidence” he said a moment later that Obama has in Holder.
Apparently Bryson will have to clean up his own wreckage. This White House has too many other pileups to deal with.