By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — The Gallup polling organization reported Monday that President Obama has had a particularly pronounced summer swoon each year of his presidency, and that August typically brings his lowest approval ratings of all.
Throughout the day, the White House proceeded to demonstrate why this is so.
The death toll is approaching 1,000 in the Egyptian military’s crackdown, the Edward Snowden case is straining international relations and new questions are emerging about privacy violations at the National Security Agency. But Obama, who just returned from a nine-day, six-golf-round vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, remained out of sight at the White House.
Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, was away, so the task of representing the White House to the outside world fell to one Josh Earnest, a deputy press secretary who lived up to his surname on Monday. For an hour, reporters quizzed him on the news of the day, and Earnest, his face burned by the Vineyard sun except where his sunglasses had been, responded by reading from a binder full of bromides.
“As you’ve heard the president talk about quite a bit, the economic interests of middle-class families is his top domestic priority,” Earnest informed the assembled reporters.
“The president believes and understands that his chief responsibility as president of the United States is the national security of the United States of America and her citizens,” he announced.
Right, right, but what about all the people being killed in Egypt?
“What you’re asking is a pretty broad question,” Earnest said, “because we’re talking about a large number of people in a large country, under a lot of different circumstances.”
This is not to pick on Earnest, a genial product of Kansas City, Mo., who is well-liked by the White House press corps. He was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing: trying to get the president through the August doldrums without making news. And that’s the problem.
Since the earliest days of the republic, Washington has been a sleepy town in August. Lawmakers once fled the capital to avoid heat and malaria; now they do it for fundraising and boondoggles. In 2002, President George W. Bush delayed making the case for war in Iraq until the fall because, his chief of staff said at the time, “you don’t introduce new products in August.”
But it no longer works to push the snooze button throughout the month. August of 2001 was when the Bush administration failed to connect the dots that could have warned of the Sept. 11 attacks. August of 2009 was when the tea party movement rallied public opposition to Obamacare.
By now it should be obvious that running the country is not an 11-month job, yet the administration is still operating under the old ways.
Obama is holding an event this week to honor the Miami Dolphins team that won the Super Bowl — in 1973. “This is an opportunity for them to get the kind of White House visit that contemporary Super Bowl-winning teams get to enjoy,” Earnest explained Monday. “I can tell you, the president is certainly looking forward to it.”
He is also, Earnest disclosed, looking forward to a bus trip at the end of the week, during which he will talk about paying for college. “I think it is going to be, hopefully, both fun and informative,” the spokesman said, tipping the reporters off to the fact that Obama believes that “never has a college education been more critical to the economic success of middle-class families in this country.”
“What’s the fun part?” NBC’s Chuck Todd asked.
“Getting on a bus for a couple of days and seeing America? Sounds pretty good to me,” the earnest man at the microphone replied.
Best of all, he said, “the current plan is for the vice president to join the president in his hometown of Scranton. So that should be fun.”
Reporters agreed: Biden is fun. “OK. See? We’re lots of fun,” Earnest said.
Less fun is all the other stuff going on in the world while the president is feting long-retired football players: an Egyptian military ignoring Obama’s calls for restraint and an NSA committing thousands of privacy violations, undermining the president’s claim that surveillance programs aren’t being abused.
On the NSA, Earnest offered the platitude that “there is an important balance for us to strike.” On U.S.-Egypt ties, he attested that “we certainly value that relationship. I think it’s fair to say that the Egyptian government does as well.”
But not enough to heed Obama’s demands. Or maybe they just aren’t paying attention. It’s August, after all.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.