By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Well, that didn’t take long.
Four months into a fresh four years, President Obama is already assuming the familiar crouch of a scandal-struck second-termer.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was visiting the White House Monday morning and the two leaders were scheduled to hold a news conference. By custom, the leaders field two questions per side from the British and American media, and sometimes many more, if the leaders are feeling expansive.
This time, White House officials said there would be only one question per side.
The motive was obvious, and counterproductive. Obvious, because Obama was trying to avoid an extended grilling on the two scandals of the moment: the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups and the “talking points” following the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Counterproductive, because he was violating the cardinal rule of scandal management: Get it out quickly.
Obama assigned the role of sole questioner to the Associated Press’ Julie Pace, who valiantly attempted to cram in three questions about the IRS and two about Benghazi. (For extra credit, she also directed two questions about Syria to Cameron.)
But the one-questioner rule still achieved its purpose, because it allowed Obama to make unchallenged statements about the IRS and the talking points. There wasn’t another American questioner, so the president had no risk of facing a follow-up.
On the IRS, he portrayed himself as an innocent bystander: “I first learned about it from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this, I think it was on Friday.” He proclaimed his distance: “The IRS as an independent agency requires absolute integrity.” He argued against a rush to judgment: “The I.G. is conducting its investigation, and you know I am not going to comment on their specific findings prematurely.”
And he qualified his expression of outrage at the IRS’ behavior by leaving open the possibility that the reports are false: “If in fact IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that have been reported on, and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that’s outrageous.”
Outrage is appropriate, but Obama’s response did him little good because it failed to get him out in front of the scandal. Rather than taking quick action — firing those involved or opening an investigation with more teeth than the inspector general’s — he has left himself at the mercy of events, and will be called to respond as details dribble out.
This was exactly his problem with Benghazi. Obama correctly said in response to Pace’s multi-headed question that the squabble over the talking points is a “sideshow.” But his administration wrote the script for this sideshow by not getting the details out quickly.
The Benghazi inquiry ceased long ago to be about its original and worthy purpose — whether the administration could have done something to prevent the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans stationed there — and became about whether the administration tried to play down terrorists’ involvement in the killings. The entire fight, about the altering of talking points U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used on Sunday TV shows soon after the attack, is rather banal, because the full story was fast emerging anyway. As Obama correctly pointed out Monday, “Who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days?”
But Obama and his aides gave license to the conspiracy theorists when they claimed months ago that they made only one minor change to the CIA-drafted talking points. They didn’t say anything publicly in March when they provided congressional investigators with emails showing that White House officials had been involved in an intense fight between the CIA and the State Department over the drafting of the points and that at least a dozen versions had been written.
As a result of not getting the information out early, the story gained new life on Friday when the emails finally leaked — and Obama was on the defensive as he responded to Pace’s question in the East Room on Monday morning. “The emails that you allude to were provided by us to congressional committees,” he said. “They reviewed them several months ago, concluded that in fact there was nothing afoul in terms of the process that we had used. And suddenly, three days ago, this gets spun up as if there’s something new to the story. There’s no ‘there’ there.”
Maybe not. But if Obama wishes to avoid the endless scandals that plague many second-term presidents, he needs to say more sooner.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.