Press Conference

Play Offense, Obama!

At today’s press conference, Obama should have been more specific about how he plans to address the IRS matter, says Michael Tomasky.

05.13.13 6:24 PM ET

There’s an old question in politics. If you (a public figure) decide to address potential controversy X head on by taking this or that action, are you effectively playing offense, or are you just drawing needless attention to a story that four out of five Americans don’t even know anything about? Politicians and their handlers always, always, always reach the second conclusion. Then, the controversy grows and mutates, like some creature from a bad 1950s horror movie. President Obama, as is his custom, tried to split the difference on the IRS question at his Monday morning press conference. It wasn’t enough. Of course in this Washington, nothing will ever be enough. We are now entering the phase of gullible mainstream thumb-sucking about Obama’s “credibility.” The folks at the White House had better understand how quickly a campy horror movie can get ugly.

Obama appeared with David Cameron—about half an hour late, a little more than usual, which added to the sense that there might have been some people back behind the curtain furiously figuring out what he should say when the inevitable questions came. Sure enough, the IRS matter was the first question. Obama said he first learned about the improper audits of right-leaning groups “in the same news reports as everyone else,” last Friday. If this is true, he said, “that’s outrageous, and there’s no place for it.” He used “outrageous” a second time, called it “contrary to our traditions,” and said he “will not tolerate it.”

What he didn’t do is say what he plans to do about it. There’s an investigation going on, he said, and he didn’t want to comment on it, and we’ll see what it says. Okay. I don’t want to sound like one of those Green-Lantern pundits who seem to believe that if Obama just says something forcefully and passionately enough, the Red Sea will part and his political foes will bend to his indefatigable will. That’s a silly Hollywood view of the world.

However, he could have said something more specific. I guarantee you some heads are going to roll. Or: over the weekend, after I heard about this, I immediately contacted the acting director of the IRS (there is no real director, since—surprise!—the Senate Republicans won’t permit a vote on one) and said that I want a report by the end of this week, and actions will be taken the following week. Next week! That wouldn’t shut down right-wing criticism, but, provided it was followed through on with the promised action, it would have the mainstream media praising him to the skies for acting quickly. Instead, how long is this going to drag on? No one has any idea.

On Benghazi, he was better. What he said was true. His counterterrorism adviser, Matthew Olsen, did indeed go up to Capitol Hill on September 19 last year, three days after Susan Rice’s infamous TV appearances (Obama originally said two days but corrected himself in subsequent mentions), and told a Senate committee: “I would say yes, they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy.” So there it was. In all these months, nothing has happened to dispute the basic timeline. There was much confusion; it wasn’t settled by the time Rice went on the air; that very day, The Wall Street Journal has reported, the CIA decided it was terrorism, but not in time to tell her; and then Olsen confirmed that it was.

If the administration was trying to pretend it wasn’t a terrorist attack so that Mitt Romney couldn’t go on the campaign trail and say it was a terrorist attack, why did the administration, in the person of Matthew Olsen, go before a group of senators and call it a terrorist attack? It strikes me that that would be a pretty incompetent way to conceal information, by stating it in public before a Senate committee at which several Republicans were present. Or as Obama put it, “who executes a cover-up for three days?”

As for Obama’s comments that the debate about the talking points is a “sideshow,” well, he’s right; I mean, just dwell on it—an investigation, costing millions, into a set of bureaucratic talking points! Unfortunately the sideshow does now include proof that the original assertion that the talking points came wholly from the intelligence world was wrong. Obama probably should have acknowledged that. Word choices matter. “There’s no there there” is going to be re-quoted over and over and over; it’s the kind of quote that hangs in the air and will be dredged up every time the Republicans produce some new little morsel, and he probably shouldn’t have said it.

We’re going to start hearing now, from a lot of the same pundits who think he can fix Washington by just showing more leadership, about Obama’s credibility. Ron Fournier already started, writing of Obama’s “credibility crisis” (crisis!). That’s going to become the focus now, not the Republicans’ obstructionism. The same Hollywood view of the presidency that thinks he can fix everything by being more assertive or by drinking more alcohol with members of the other party also believes that a president can just magically restore his credibility and silence critics with one great speech that strikes the perfect balance between righteousness and humility. But that isn’t real life. Real life is an opposition party that wants to bring Obama down however it can, and a press corps that wants this to last as long as possible. Time is the friend of these things mushrooming into “scandal.” Obama ought to move fast, especially on the IRS matter, to slam the door.