09.02.11

Obama’s Bad Friday

It’s no accident the White House released a series of bad-news stories before a holiday weekend. Daniel Stone on the administration’s effort to pivot to jobs.

In a great old episode of the TV show The West Wing, White House staffers devote one day, specifically a Friday, to consolidate the administration’s bad press. A senior staffer divulges why: “Any stories we have to give the press that we’re not wild about, we give all in a lump on Friday…because no one reads the paper on Saturday.”

In a town where reality can easily mirror fiction, Obama devoted much of his Friday to taking out the administration’s trash—and right before a long weekend, no less. New employment data released in the morning—showing zero job growth—put another indelible stain on Obama’s economic policies. An hour later, the president announced he’d scale back an administration regulation on ozone that energy producers and business leaders had strenuously opposed. And administration officials on Friday began leaking word that Obama wouldn’t impede the approval process for an oil pipeline that environmentalists (including Daryl Hannah) had protested at the White House for two weeks.

There have also been stories that spiraled out of the administration’s control. A planning snafu over the timing of Obama’s jobs speech to Congress next week blew up messily when House Speaker John Boehner balked, forcing the administration to back down. Trying to manage the federal response to Hurricane Irene and the unusual East Coast earthquake was made more difficult by images of the president on vacation in tony Martha’s Vineyard.

In politics, there are ways to spin one’s way out of most unfavorable vignettes. And the White House tried. Senior advisers told reporters on a conference call that Obama’s ozone announcement was not related to politics or industry pressure, “but a judgment on the merits.” And Katharine Abraham, a senior economic adviser, touted the fact that at least some sectors, like health care and social assistance, added about 35,000 new jobs. But media outlets weren’t buying it. Crowned by The Washington Post scribe Chris Cillizza, Obama was awarded the dubious honor of having the Worst Week in Washington.

Yet one day—or even one month—of bad press doesn’t derail an administration. And in fact, the spate of unfavorable developments provides a rare opportunity for the embattled president. Friday’s bleak news on multiple fronts dragged down the White House as the president boarded Marine One for Camp David. But in the coming week, the news cycle will inevitably be defined by Sept. 11 commemorations and the GOP presidential debate on Wednesday in California. By the time Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night, he may have an opportunity to drive a new message and reboot his presidency, framing the debate as looking hopefully forward and not in the rearview mirror at the economy’s dark past.

It’s no accident the White House released a series of bad news before a holiday weekend.

"He doesn’t want any distraction going forward," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at American University. "That’s why he brushed away a lot of the bad news. This is his shot to start fresh, he’s not going to get another one." He's not the first to try it, either. Richard Nixon attempted to get back on track by appointing a new Treasury secretary and selling a new bold jobs plan. Jimmy Carter tried it, too, with his famous "malaise" speech designed as a marking point of his time in office.

Obama won't just rely on his speech to jumpstart his stalled presidency. Officials tell The Daily Beast that Obama won’t divulge his entire jobs agenda on Thursday, but instead will unveil different components all month. He’s expected to make a campaign-style trip through California, Washington, and Colorado to talk more about jobs, and is likely to continue the messaging to portray a freshened economic vision.

Everything Obama says, reporters will cover. But the president’s political overhaul is complicated by the burgeoning Republican field of candidates vying for his job. For them, the past may be their best hope at victory, illuminating key ways Obama has disappointed parts of his base. “In a country with 307 million people, zero job growth is unfathomable,” Jon Huntsman, a former ambassador in Obama’s administration, said Friday morning. “It’s time for America to compete again and it’s time for a new president.” Michele Bachmann was just as blunt: “Mr. President, we gave you $2.4 trillion in new spending and the American people got nothing in return.”

It’s possible that Obama’s rhetorical mountain may be too steep a climb, and that only a substantial move of the needle on jobs, unemployment, or growth can provide the altitude he needs. The oft-quoted political scientist Larry Sabato is skeptical that a high-profile speech, and subsequent tour, can really help Obama pivot. “It has to be real news to reinvent himself,” says Sabato, the veteran analyst. “There’s no way you’ll reemploy 16 million unemployed people, but if people have a belief that things are getting better, well, then he can.”