The town is turning on President Obama – and this is very bad news for this White House. The scandals grow bigger by the day. Republicans have one-third of all congressional committees on the case now. Establishment Democrats, never big fans of this president to begin with, are starting to speak out. And reporters are tripping over themselves to condemn lies, bullying and shadiness in the Obama administration.
Buy-in from all three D.C. stakeholders is an essential ingredient for a good old fashioned Washington pile-on — so get ready for bad stories and public scolding to pile-up.
Vernon Jordan, a close adviser to President Bill Clinton through his darkest days, told us: “It’s never all right if you’re the president. There is no smooth sailing. So now he has the turbulence, and this is the ultimate test of his leadership.” Jordan says Obama needs to do something dramatic on the IRS, and quick: “He needs to fire somebody. He needs action, not conversation.”
Obama’s aloof mien and holier-than-thou rhetoric have left him with little reservoir of good will, even among Democrats. And the press, after years of being accused of being soft on Obama while being berated by West Wing aides on matters big and small, now has every incentive to be as ruthless as can be.
This White House’s instinctive petulance, arrogance and defensiveness have all worked together to isolate Obama at a time when he most needs a support system. “It feel like they don’t know what they’re here to do,” a former senior Obama administration official said. “When there’s no narrative, stuff like this consumes you.”
Republican outrage is predictable, maybe even manageable. Democratic outrage is not.
The dam of solid Democratic solidarity has collapsed, starting with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s weekend scolding of the White House over Benghazi, then gushing with the news the Justice Department had sucked-up an absurdly broad swath of Associated Press phone records.
Democrats are privately befuddled by the White House’s flat-footed handling of this P.R. and legal mess, blaming a combination of bad timing, hubris and communications ineptitude. The most charitable defense offered up on background is that Obama staffers are scandal virgins, unaccustomed to dealing with a rabid press.
Chris Lehane, who spent so much time managing scandals in the 1990s that it inspired him to write a textbook on managing them, is among the contingent of Clinton-era scandal hands that thinks the Obama team has botched its second-term image. “One cannot get caught up with chasing news cycles in a crisis, as that is a prescription for putting out inaccurate information that does not withstand scrutiny or the test of time,” said Lehane, whose book is titled “Masters of Disaster.”
One Democrat who likes Obama and has been around town for many years said elected officials in his own party are no different than Republicans: they think the president is distant and unapproachable.
“He has never taken the Democratic chairs up to Camp David to have a drink or to have a discussion,” the longtime Washingtonian said. “You gotta stroke people, and talk to them. It’s like courting: you have to send flowers and candy and have surprises. It’s a constant process. Now they’re saying, ‘He never talked to me in the good times.’ ”
This makes it easier for Democrats like House Oversight Committee Elijah Cummings to pop off, like he did on CNN Tuesday, calling the IRS scandal “one of the most alarming things” he’s ever seen. Ouch.
None of this is going away. Top Republicans tell us the Benghazi investigations will last at least months, and probably until the midterms of 2014 and beyond. Same for the IRS scandal - and new scrutiny of how the Obama White House clamps down on its critics. Republicans are also working up plans to use the backdrop of government incompetence and over-reach to try to further undermine implementation of the new health care law.
This is a dangerous — albeit familiar — place for a second-term president. Once the dogs are released, they bark, they bite, and it takes a very long time to calm them down. Bill Clinton got hit early and often, and George W. Bush never really recovered from it.
No doubt, the hysteria cools. But, once you hit this point, it takes time, often lots of it.
The long-term danger is that the political system and the public start to view the president, his motives and ideas through a more skeptical lens. The short-term danger is the press races for new details, new scandals, new expressions of indignity with each passing day. Read Tuesday morning editorial pages of every paper for a taste of things to come. Or watch a re-run of Tuesday’s “Morning Joe,” where reporters made it sound like Obama is a modern day Nixon.
““And it goes beyond even the story,” National Journal’s Ron Fournier, who covered the Clinton and Bush scandals and was once the AP Washington bureau chief, said on the show. “One common thing with Benghazi and the IRS scandal, is we’re being misled every day. We were lied to on Benghazi, on the talking points behind Benghazi, for months. We were lied to by the IRS for months and now they’re sending a clear message to our sources:
Don’t embarrass the administration or we’re coming after you.”