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.
Although Obama does not pore over the conservative attacks himself, he is not oblivious to them, advisers said. He does not watch cable television regularly, but he reads his news summary each morning, and he often follows up with staff members when he hears what he considers out-of-bounds allegations -- sometimes after learning of them in e-mails from friends outside the White House, for example, or from ordinary voters at rallies. Little of it surprises him, aides said.
"In the fall of the campaign, you could find many similar sentiments at McCain-Palin rallies and certainly at Sarah Palin rallies," communications director Anita Dunn said. "These aren't new arguments. The level of vehemence, the emotional level of it, is at a campaign peak, which is unusual to find in a non-campaign year."
Dunn played down the role that race could have in fueling the rancor. "I think that is less a part of it than some other people might think," she said. "If you look at the history of this country, you see that in times of great stress and change, there are people who are concerned, who are threatened, there are people who are scared."
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel echoed her point. "Father Coughlin called Roosevelt a socialist, the John Birch Society was created in reaction to Kennedy, Clinton had [Richard Mellon] Scaife and others who went after him," he said. "And now they've come after Obama on Socialism and other things. This has always been a creed from those voices dealing with Democratic presidents. But yes, there's an intensity, given the [rapid media] time frame we're all under, that's different."
During the Clinton administration, conservative opposition mounted to such a degree that the Clintons came to view it as a "vast right-wing conspiracy," bankrolled by wealthy conservatives and airing damning claims, such as their alleged involvement in the death of their friend Vincent W. Foster Jr., whose death was ruled a suicide. Partisan warfare became blood sport, and while President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed at times to revel in it, it had a political price: Obama found success in the Democratic primaries in part by promising to move past the fighting.
Now, the challenge for Obama will be to maintain that stance without ceding ground to his most extreme critics, whom administration officials believe are trying to mount an existential threat to the president.
"There's a broader argument that is the underlying argument to all of these attacks, which is a very fundamental struggle about trying to tear this president down and delegitimize his presidency," said one senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "That is really the war. And all of these are skirmishes -- some of them flare up into battles -- but the broader war is about the fate of this presidency and the other side's attempts to delegitimize him and to make him into a failure."