As Right Jabs Continue, White House Debates a Counterpunching Strategy

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Facing a near-daily barrage of attacks from conservative opponents, White House officials are engaged in an internal debate over how hard to hit back, even as they have grown increasingly aggressive in countering allegations they deem to be absurd.

After brushing aside criticism during the presidential campaign that they tried to keep candidate Barack Obama too far above the fray -- and with memories of the abundance of media coverage during the Clinton years -- administration officials are accelerating their efforts to anticipate and respond to the most sharp-edged charges.

The White House officials are eager to avoid the perception that the president is directly engaging critics who appear to speak only for a vocal minority, and part of their strategy involves pushing material to liberal and progressive media outlets to steer the coverage in their direction, senior advisers said.

When critics lashed out at President Obama for scheduling a speech to public school students this month, accusing him of wanting to indoctrinate children to his politics, his advisers quickly scrubbed his planned comments for potentially problematic wording. They then reached out to progressive Web sites such as the Huffington Post, liberal bloggers and Democratic pundits to make their case to a friendly audience.

The controversy escalated, but by the time it was over, White House advisers thought they had emerged with the upper hand. The speech, they said, was the most-viewed live video on any government Web site in history, and they were pleased with the media coverage of the event.

In private, Obama has developed what his advisers say is becoming a familiar response to new allegations, rolling his eyes in disbelief and asking how his staff plans to counter them. Several senior advisers said in interviews that they are more focused on getting legislation passed than trying to manage the "right-wing noise machine," convinced that voters will react most positively to measurable improvements in their lives.

But at a tactical level, administration officials are taking seriously the potential for damage and are attempting to respond forcefully. In early August, officials stepped up their efforts to link the "birther" movement -- with its contention that Obama was not born in the United States and is thus not a legitimate president -- to Republican leaders.

Later in the month, Obama advisers began pushing back against allegations that he would establish "death panels" in his health-care overhaul, calling out former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin for posting that charge on her Facebook page. Obama publicly rejected the charge that he is maintaining an "enemies list," raising the issue to dismiss it at a town hall meeting.

Officials who were interviewed said the goal is to anticipate the conservative attacks and be ready to respond the moment they threaten to balloon into a major story. They acknowledge, however, having limited success so far.

"In a world with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report and everything else that makes up the right-wing noise machine, nothing is clean and nothing is simple," a senior administration official said. "You don't stomp a story out. You ride the wave and try to steer it to safe water."

The level of hostility toward Obama in recent months has been exceptionally high for a new president. Even before Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted "You lie!" during a presidential address to Congress last week, Obama had been accused of wanting to kill people's grandparents (through health-care reform), expose their children to political re-education (through an expansion of community service programs) and use health care to make reparations for slavery (by expanding coverage).

How the Obama White House deals with the frenzy going forward will be a test of its talents, senior administration officials acknowledged.

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