President Barack Obama renewed his oath of office in January vowing to use the bully pulpit to rally the American people around his second-term agenda.
Now, with a trio of controversies fueled by relentless attacks from congressional Republicans, the limits of the presidential megaphone are on display.
Since it was revealed on May 10 that the Internal Revenue Service improperly screened Tea Party and other smaller-government groups seeking tax-exempt status, the president has struggled to shift the focus. Press conferences with foreign leaders, a new campaign to sell his economic plans and Thursday’s announcement of his new counter-terrorism policy have been overshadowed in news reports.
“The bully pulpit has got a little bit of a drape over it when you’ve got everyone throwing rotten tomatoes over it,” said Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary to former President Bill Clinton.
Obama has a limited window to galvanize Americans, put his stamp on revamping the nation’s immigration laws, pursue climate-change legislation and ensure that the plan to expand health coverage to tens of millions of the uninsured is carried out in the face of Republican resistance.
Every day that his message is overtaken by the static noise of congressional probes -- into the Justice Department’s seizure of phone records from the Associated Press, the administration’s handling of the September attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, and questions about what White House aides knew about the IRS scandal and when they knew it -- is a missed opportunity.
Obama has twice gone on the road to promote economic and education proposals from his State of the Union address. A May 17 trip to Baltimore to talk about infrastructure investments coincided with the first hearings on the IRS. The president used remarks at Morehouse College’s commencement ceremony and at a White House event to target key constituents -- young people and women -- as his health-care law moves into the make-or-break implementation stage.
Yesterday at the National Defense University in Washington he said he’s revamping U.S. counter-terrorism policy to reduce the reliance on drone strikes against suspected terrorists and urged lawmakers not to block the shutdown of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In less than four hours, there was a new development in the IRS case -- that a key official had been placed on administrative leave.
If Obama is unable to sway the public “and there is a real, genuine distracting scandal, then he’s hurt, he’s undermined politically in terms of his effectiveness as a leader,” said Robert Dallek, who is among a group of historians to have met periodically with the president.
McCurry and other Clinton White House veterans who are no strangers to scandal have advised Obama’s aides to be patient, focus the president’s time on his economic message and try to ride out the storm. He’s taking that approach.
“His first order of business is to keep the faith of the American people in him,” said Harold Ickes, who was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff.
Presidents get opportunities in times of crisis to step into the commander-in-chief role, as was on display this week when Obama addressed the country on the mile-wide tornado that devastated Moore, Oklahoma. He pledged the full power of the government to help the rescue operation, just as lawmakers were sitting down for a second day of hearings on the IRS probe. Obama will visit Moore on Sunday to view the damage and meet with survivors and emergency workers.
One major agenda item that may not depend on his ability to use the megaphone is the push for an immigration law that would offer a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented workers. The president has largely left the crafting of the legislation to a bipartisan group of lawmakers, and this week the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure paving the way for a full Senate debate in early June.
All along, Obama has avoided wading too deeply into the immigration debate to prevent the issue from being even more polarizing. And as the administration’s handling of the IRS and other issues roils Capitol Hill, there’s the risk of a hardening environment for any bipartisan accords on the nation’s fiscal debt and new gun laws.
“The immigration bill’s about the only thing that’s going to get done,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
On May 16, the Republican-leaning Heritage Action for America sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor urging them to keep the focus on the administration’s actions on Benghazi and the IRS, saying they underscore the need for smaller government.
“It is incumbent upon the House of Representatives to conduct oversight hearings on those actions” and to avoid bringing any legislation to the floor that could “highlight major schisms” among Republicans, such as over the Internet sales tax, wrote Michael Needham, the chief executive officer of Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation. “As the public’s trust in their government continues to erode, it is incumbent upon those of us who support a smaller, less- intrusive government to lead.”
To get back on the offensive, Obama may turn to a strategy he has often employed in times of challenge: delivering a big speech. He can try to point public attention back to his message of economic security and making the tax system more fair in the context of a strengthening recovery.
A 2008 speech he gave in Philadelphia on race relations shifted attention away from the inflammatory sermons of his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In the fall of 2009, he addressed a joint session of Congress to revive his push for the health-care law and returned in September 2011 to outline a jobs agenda after a politically damaging summer fight with Congress to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
“He certainly has the largest bullhorn out there, and when he speaks, people do listen,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief political strategist. “But the notion that that ensures that you can work your will, it’s just never been true. What it does do is help shape the debate.”
The president’s advisers say that by summer’s end most Americans will be heartened that he wasn’t thrown off track.
“You can’t control all the outside factors, so you just have to run your plays and keep running them,” senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said.
Because of the schedule, it would be difficult to give what his aides call a circuit-breaker speech before July 4. The calendar itself may help. Congress begins its Memorial Day recess next week. Obama travels to Northern Ireland and Berlin in mid-June and within days of returning will head off to Africa until July 3.
For now, he’s buoyed by an improving economy, steady approval ratings and polls that show the American public’s interest in the controversies are limited.
The nation’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.5 percent in April from 7.9 percent at the beginning of the year. The stock market has risen to record highs, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index up more than 15 percent this year.
Americans are more interested in reports about the economy than they are about the IRS, Benghazi or the Justice Department’s actions, according to a survey released May 20 by the Pew Research Center.
Still, while most Americans back Obama’s job performance, an overwhelming majority say the probes will have an impact on his agenda.
A USA Today poll released this week showed that 73 percent of Americans believe the IRS and Benghazi probes will make it more difficult for the president to accomplish his goals. Fifty- three percent approve of the job he’s doing, virtually unchanged from early April, according to a CNN/ORC International poll.
As the president’s bullhorn competes with the subpoena power of Congress, the limits of second-term presidencies become even clearer. Obama, who used his oratorical skills to ascend the political ladder and captivate many voters, runs the risk of giving one speech too many.
“The danger of that approach is you can sometimes get overexposed and your voice on key matters doesn’t grab America’s attention as you would like it,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, who has also met with Obama. “There’s a diminishing quality to the bully pulpit in American life.”
Even when he does command the bully pulpit, there are some things beyond his control, as he found yesterday when a heckler interrupted his counterterrorism speech.
“Let me finish, ma’am,” he said to a woman in the audience protesting the detention center in Guantanamo Bay. “Part of free speech is you being able to speak, but also you listening,” he said. “I’m going off script, as you might expect here.”
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