March Madness: How W.H. Plays Defense

Republicans were gaining traction with their charge that President Barack Obama’s proposed tax hikes would hurt small businesses. So no surprise when the White House threw an event on Monday’s schedule to extol the administration’s plans to funnel stimulus funds to entrepreneurs. 

By the time the event took place, however, Obama’s efforts to respond to this blaze were taken over by a much bigger fire: Public and lawmaker outrage over lavish bonuses for bailed-out American International Group

At many turns, Obama these days finds himself in what for him is a relatively unfamiliar place—on defense. 

Part of the Obama mystique—one his own aides work hard to promote—is that he and his team are sublimely calm and collected, too cool to care about Washington chatter, too disciplined to be thrown off message by the Washington uproar du jour. 

The reality is that the Obama team can be every bit as reactive and improvisational as any other political operation. And recent weeks have revealed some of the Obama operation’s signature tricks for fighting back when Washington storylines throw the president on defense:

Get ahead of the story

The White House knew last weekend that word was about to break on AIG’s mega-million-dollar bonuses to top executives – some of the very same execs that made the risky bets that brought the company down, and almost dragged the world’s economy down with it.

So the Obama administration put out word for the Sunday newspapers that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had told the company CEO earlier in the week that the payments were unacceptable and had to be negotiated.

It was a way to try to blunt a bad story, with a few paragraphs up high about how Obama’s team tried to head off the problem at the start. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who doesn’t work for Obama, still helped capture some of that Washington vs. Wall Street anger when he told “60 Minutes” the AIG situation made him angry, so much so that he slammed down the phone a few times.

Rebut critics, without really engaging them.

Obama aides mock the Washington hand-wringers and are loathe to ever concede a move was borne out of fretting from the capital’s chattering class. But they sure do know how to respond – on their terms.

Beleaguered Republicans on Capitol Hill see political potential in tying Obama to the unsavory business of earmarking?

The president takes to the cameras to roll out his own (modest) earmark reform plan, thereby deflecting attention from his signing a pork-laden spending bill that same day – in private.

The explanation from press secretary Robert Gibbs drew knowing laughter from the White House press corps: “Some things are signed in public, and some aren't.”

Those same Republicans think they can get traction against Obama’s budget by framing the tax increases as small-business killers?

That’s what prompted Obama to schedule the a small business event at the White House and surround the president with small business owners who, by the way, were available to talk the media afterward about the new proposals Obama is touting.

And that butt of jokes from late-night comics and source of much fretting from Wall Street to K Street, Tim Geithner?

Quietly let cameras into the Oval Office one day for a routine economic briefing so the president can be seen standing by his man, a picture suitable for framing on the front-page of the influential Financial Times last week.

Hit the history books

At times, the White House does directly respond to criticism. When they do, they’re quick to note that the facts are on their side.

Facing questions about the pace in which they’re staffing up key agencies after numerous appointees fell by the wayside, administration officials turned to history. They quickly distributed to reporters a graph showing how many nominations and appointments the past three presidents had made in their first three months and noted that they were on track or even ahead of precedent (with March not even over yet!)

Never mind that it’s not exactly apples-to-apples, as presidents Bush and Clinton weren’t trying to battle a global economic meltdown as they put together their Treasury teams.

It was also history that Obama cited when, at the start of an education speech, he offered an unmistakable rejoinder to those nervous he may be taking on too much too fast.

“I know there's some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time,” he said, before noting the weighty tasks juggled by Lincoln, FDR and JFK.

Work the Bully Pulpit

After his stimulus package hit some bumps along the way, Obama pivoted sharply away from bipartisan bonhomie and toward a more campaign-style approach. He still courted moderate Republicans – winning over three of them in the Senate – but the president’s primary focus became convincing the public of the recovery package’s urgency.

He did this directly, taking to the road in hard-hit states and earning wall-to-wall media attention talking to real Americans while also using a primetime news conference to make his case.

Aides credit this decision for the quick pace in which House and Senate negotiators came to a final agreement, getting the bill to the president’s desk by President’s Day.

More to the point, it also elevated the legislation – putting it on a more serious plane than it had been defined to date in an often unsightly nitty-gritty over extraneous and small provisions.

Asked what they would do if an issue like health care should gets bogged down in the congressional back and forth, a senior White House official pointed to their response on the stimulus.

When it slowed down, Obama stepped up.

It was a defensive move, executed due to the stagnating Beltway debate of the bill, but it got him back on offense.

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