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05.17.13

A Tough Week, But Obama’s Agenda Isn’t Dead

It was rough—the IRS, Benghazi, the AP phone calls. But the president’s already moving past the week’s ‘Watergate’ to get back to business, as immigration reform edges forward.

President Obama didn’t take the bait when a reporter asked how he felt about the comparison some of his critics were making about the scandals in his administration with those that happened when Richard Nixon was in the White House. The question capped a weeklong orgy of rhetoric with Republicans assailing abuses of power at the IRS and Justice Department, and the media all but writing off Obama’s second term as a colossal management failure.

Obama didn’t protest “I’m not Nixon,” which would have echoed the former president who once famously said in response to a question, “I’m not a crook.” He replied in the measured way that is his trademark, “You can go ahead and read the history, I think, and draw your own conclusions.” For the record, Nixon headed what can fairly be called a criminal conspiracy; some 40 people in his administration went to jail and did hard time.

The fact that a trio of scandals hitting roughly at the same time took on the aura of Watergate says more about the way our media work today than about any corrosive lapses in the White House or personality flaws in the president. “It’s fine to take a pounding for a couple of news cycles to figure out what you’re going to do,” says Chris Lehane, an alumnus of the Clinton White House, who says the president with his remarks Thursday afternoon in the Rose Garden is “out of the bunker” and has made “the pivot” to where it will be harder for the Republicans to use the scandals to thwart his agenda.

Obama swatted away the controversies eroding his authority and credibility, linking Benghazi to his budget request for more money for embassy security, effectively shifting the onus to the GOP, and he made a compelling case on national-security grounds for Justice’s action in pursuing a leak investigation. “I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me as commander in chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.”

As long as he’s Mr. Clean on the IRS, Obama is home free—or at least free to get out of crisis mode and back into the normal fray of governing. He travels to Baltimore on Friday, the second in a series of short trips in his “Middle-Class Jobs and Opportunity Tours” to promote his initiatives in preschool education, infrastructure investment, and job training. Boring, the press will say, but these trips garner lots of positive local coverage, and at some point the national press takes notice. “It won’t break through right away, but after a while there is a cumulative impact of people seeing the president is focused on their agenda, not the Washington agenda,” says Mike McCurry, who was President Clinton’s press secretary.

The bipartisan coalition for immigration reform is fragile, but the focus elsewhere allows serious work on the bill to continue without the glare of the media.

When Clinton was under siege during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, every day he would say he had to get back to doing the work of the American people, “and we would put out a picture of him meeting with some group,” says McCurry. In Obama’s press conference Thursday with the Turkish prime minister standing next to him, the president said his job is to “fix problems” and that’s what he would be doing. Building the economy is what the voters care about, and to the extent that Obama’s critics keep harping on other issues, the public will get even more exasperated than they are now. “That’s how MoveOn got started,” McCurry recalls, people had enough scandal and wanted to move on with the business of the country.

None of the scandals that have driven the news cycles for the last week will be much more than background noise, but that won’t stop the Republicans from using the IRS investigation in particular to try to poison the well for Obamacare, which relies on the IRS for implementation. The Republican-controlled House voted Thursday for the 37th time to repeal Obamacare, a futile effort but one that draws new energy from the missteps of the IRS. The law remains confusing and the challenges of putting it in place are formidable.

Obama has gotten as far as he has with immigration reform by staying low key and letting the Senate put together a bill. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was the sole administration witness at last month’s Senate hearing. She recalled at an event Thursday morning sponsored by Atlantic Media that the bill passed the Judiciary Committee at 2 a.m, and she got it at 3 a.m. It was 854 pages, and it was the week of the Boston Marathon bombing, so when she testified, lawmakers assumed she didn’t have time to read the bill. “I’ve read the bill,” she assured them. “We multitask, something all women learn to do,” she said Thursday.

The bipartisan coalition for immigration reform is fragile, and supporters worry the onslaught of peripheral issues, from the Boston bombing to the IRS, could sink the bill, while others say the focus elsewhere allows serious work to continue without the glare of the media. “It’s the one thing in Washington that actually has a shot,” says Napolitano. As complicated as immigration policy is, there is enough political self-interest on all sides that it might just pass. The story of Obama’s second term has many more rewrites.