By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009
Word went out from the White House even before the first rhetorical shots had been taken at Sonia Sotomayor: Keep your powder dry.
The last thing the administration needed, senior aides to President Obama made clear to their liberal allies both publicly and privately, was a war with conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich over whether the judge is a racist. Stay on message, they counseled, and we will offer a clear case about her credentials and legal experience.
With less than a month before congressional hearings begin on Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, the White House is trying to quietly guide what staffers describe as an unusually broad network of law enforcement organizations, liberal allies, legal officials, Latino groups and women's organizations that want to see her confirmed.
Many of the groups have been biding their time for eight years, champing at the bit as they watched their conservative counterparts usher candidates into seats on the court. That makes the challenge of maintaining message discipline even more difficult for an Obama team that campaigned for the presidency with supreme confidence in its tightly controlled operations.
"Support for Judge Sotomayor has been remarkably organic," said Stephanie Cutter, a White House adviser charged with guiding Sotomayor to confirmation. "Much of what we're seeing is happening on its own."
Cutter is the gatekeeper for interviews with family members and friends, but efforts to reach out and work with the groups on behalf of the White House are being orchestrated in part by Ricki Seidman, a veteran of the 2008 campaign and the Clinton presidency who has remained outside the administration. As liaison to the progressive groups and a strategic adviser, Seidman has organized conference calls and several White House meetings since Sotomayor was nominated on May 26.
On Tuesday, she hovered at the back of Room 350 in the Old Executive Office Building as the leaders of several law enforcement groups stood with Vice President Biden to endorse Sotomayor in an event that was arranged, directed and publicized by the White House communication staff. After the event, New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, Sotomayor's friend and former boss, and others were led to microphones just steps from the West Wing to speak with White House reporters.
"President Obama rightly wants this nomination to be debated on the qualifications over this nominee rather than to get bogged down in a battle between interest groups on the right or the left," said Doug Kendall, the director of a progressive constitutional law group who has attended White House meetings.
"What he wants, and what I think the progressive community has done pretty well, is to stand back a bit and let the president and Judge Sotomayor present their case and explain for themselves," Kendall said.
Obama's presidential campaign did not rely much on outside groups to carry his message to voters last year. His communications team had little faith in the outside organizations that popped up to advocate his candidacy or defend him against his rivals. Communication, especially during crisis, was handled internally.
Senior White House officials acknowledge that governing is different. Advisers leading the Sotomayor effort are in frequent contact with established progressive groups such as People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and an umbrella group called the Coalition for Constitutional Values.
Conservative critics say the White House is overmanaging the Sotomayor rollout and accuse Obama of exceeding propriety in his overt promotion of the judge.
Wendy Long, counsel for a group that opposes Sotomayor's confirmation, mocked the law enforcement event as a "county sheriff election rally" in a statement and called it evidence of an "unprecedented political campaign by a White House for a Supreme Court nominee."
White House allies counter that Obama is doing nothing differently that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, did. Bush's White House brought in veteran political operatives to shepherd nominees through the process. Steve Schmidt, who managed Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign, directed strategic communications for the nomination of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Schmidt led the nomination effort for Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
A senior Obama adviser said the White House is not attempting to tell progressive groups what to say. But the adviser acknowledged that there is a regular flow of information between the West Wing's Office of Public Engagement and the leaders of the groups.
"There's a lot of meetings that you don't even know about, to make sure that anyone who's talking about the nomination has accurate information," the adviser said. "That's how you do a rollout."
On the day Sotomayor's nomination was announced in the East Room, leaders of many of the progressive organizations were there -- invited guests who have since appeared on television, participated in interviews and developed advertising to support the nominee. Shortly after the ceremony, the White House conducted conference calls and distributed e-mail "talking points" that summarized the president's message.
One source familiar with the communications strategy for the nomination said the groups are adjusting to having a Democratic president in office. During the Bush years, making the progressive case on a court nomination was up to them. Now they are an adjunct to the White House operation.
"They are incredibly helpful in communicating with their members, in correcting unfactual information about her, and ensuring there is a good information flow to the Senate," one top adviser said.
But the White House insists Sotomayor's long career in New York legal circles has generated a much broader surge of support that goes beyond the usual suspects.
The law enforcement event, for example, grew out of independent efforts by Morgenthau to rally New York's legal community behind his former assistant district attorney.
Latino organizations have rallied around Sotomayor with no prodding from the White House. Univision produced a biographical ad about the judge without the White House's knowledge, aides said. A group of 50 law professors in Arizona has written a letter supporting her to the state's two Republican senators.
Sotomayor's friends have found an intermediary in John Siffert, a New York lawyer and longtime friend of the judge who was one of the few outside the White House to know she had been interviewed by Obama before the East Room announcement last month. He has become an unofficial spokesman and traffic cop for her.
When Siffert receives calls from supporters -- as he did last week about her teaching experience -- he often calls the White House for guidance and information, he said. But just as often, he simply tells supporters to remain calm and says things will work out.
Siffert said he got half a dozen panicked e-mails from former Sotomayor law clerks when Limbaugh and Gingrich made their comments. "We have to stop this right away," they said. "This needs to be rebutted."
"I said, 'Hey, this is a roller-coaster ride,' " Siffert recalled. " 'She's ready for it. She's tough. Relax. Chill out. The team that's elected the president is behind her now.' "