The White House is taking a hard line on scandal talk. Can they make it stick?

May 20, 2013

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer made clear on Sunday that the Obama administration will not gather itself into a defensive crouch in the wake of a series of scandals and investigations that have come to a head in the past 10 days.


Can the White House hold the line on the IRS, Benghazi and the AP? AP photo.

"What we’re not going to participate in is partisan fishing expeditions designed to distract from the real issues at hand," Pfeiffer told ABC's George Stephanopoulos when asked about congressional investigations into the IRS's policy of targeting conservative groups seeking tax exempt status for additional scrutiny. (In response to the administration's handling of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Pfeiffer said Republicans owed U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice an "apology.")

In an appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation", Pfeiffer took a similar approach, arguing that "this is the Republican playbook here ... try to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped-up hearings and false allegations." He added: "We are not going to let that distract us and the president from actually doing people’s work and fighting for the middle class."

The question is whether Pfeiffer can make good on that pledge. The White House has clearly decided -- with Pfeiffer's tone and rhetoric being the prime examples -- that simply taking all of the political blows to come on the IRS, Benghazi and the secret seizure of phone records of Associated Press journalists without throwing a few punches of their own won't work. Their goal then? Paint further inquiries -- beyond those already ongoing -- as politically motivated rather than non (or at least bi) partisan attempts to get all of the facts out.

It's probably the best of a series of not-so-good choices for a White House that has watched its second term agenda stymied -- first by the failure of a package of gun proposals in the Senate and now by the confluence of these three investigations. But, there's plenty -- or, at least three -- reasons to think the White House's aggressive stance might not work.

First, because the American public -- at least at the moment -- thinks the various investigations are not only important, but that congressional Republicans are right to push for more information. (This is noteworthy because the American public agrees with congressional Republicans on virtually nothing these days.)

A new CNN poll released Sunday morning shows that a majority of Americans think the issues surrounding the IRS, Benghazi and the AP's phone records are "very important" to the nation.  Nearly six in 10 Americans say that congressional GOPers have "reacted appropriately" when it comes to Benghazi while 54 percent say the same thing about Republican reaction to the IRS revelations.

The second impediment to the White House's hard line on scandal talk is the fact that, well, facts seem to keep coming out -- none of which are helping the administration's case.

Take the IRS story. On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House counsel's office knew the findings of the Inspector General report on the IRS's targeting of conservative groups but chose not to pass that information along to the president. A small detail, yes. But the reality is that the IRS story is now only 10 days old -- and it's almost certain that more details like this, which will fuel the calls for more investigations, will come out.

The final problem for the White House in maintaining its current stance on the investigations is the fact that some Democratic elected officials eyeing their reelection races next November may be less willing to walk lockstep with the administration on these matters, particularly when it comes to the IRS.

For a Democrat running for another term in a swing or GOP-leaning state -- and the 2014 Senate map is full of them -- the IRS may be too attractive a political target to let pass, even if President Obama makes it clear he'd rather they say less than more.

Taking a hard line is easy. Making it stick isn't.

Fixbits:

Virginia Republican lieutenant gubernatorial nominee E.W. Jackson said in a 2012 video that Planned Parenthood has been "far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was." Jackson is a black minister and activist.

Obama got personal about race and manhood during his commencement address at historically black Morehouse College.

The president said at a DSCC fundraiser Sunday that he is optimistic despite the "rough and tumble" politics he expects. Meanwhile, Michelle Nunn appeared at the fundraiser, stoking speculation she will run for the Senate in Georgia.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the Obama administration "made up a tale" about Benghazi. He also predicted that Obamacare would be the biggest issue of 2014.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said the Obama administration has engaged in a "culture of cover-ups."

Must-reads: 

"Four key Hillary Clinton staffers from 2008 unlikely to sign on for 2016 bid" -- Jason Horowitz, Washington Post

"GOP senators stave off primary foes" -- Manu Raju, Politico

"President Obama exercises a fluid grip on the levers of power" -- Philip Rucker and Peter Wallsten, Washington Post

"A rare peek into a Justice Department leak probe" -- Ann E. Marimow, Washington Post

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