With his recent road show to trumpet his economic plans, President Obama has developed a favorite phrase for diagnosing what ails Washington: “phony scandals.”
Those "phony scandals" encompass a series of issues the White House is trying to defang, including the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups, the delay of Obamacare’s employer mandate, the Justice Department snooping on reporters and the administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama surrogates characterized initial questions about the controversies as legitimate, but said they have since been hijacked by Republican leaders sensing political blood in the water ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections.
“It’s been talked about by some of the leadership up on the Hill in the House as part of a political strategy for the fall, and all of these allegations — especially on the IRS — about White House involvement … all of these things have not been as such,” Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Wednesday at a breakfast organized by The Christian Science Monitor.
Pfeiffer said the GOP narrative was undercut by revelations that the IRS targeted some progressive groups, even though liberal organizations did not face the same level of scrutiny as those aligned with the Tea Party or other conservative causes.
The one issue raised during the rough political patch for Obama that the White House agrees deserves a closer look is the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance of Americans' phone and email records.
“I would separate NSA,” Pfeiffer said in response to a question from the Washington Examiner. “There’s a tendency, everyone decided that we’re going to throw everything in some bucket called ‘scandals.’ NSA is a legitimate policy debate, one that should continue. There are questions of ensuring the proper balance between security and privacy. And that’s a debate the president has said he wants to have.”
Republicans say the “there’s-nothing-to-see-here” defense coming from the White House is disingenuous.
“If these are such ‘phony scandals,’ why did Obama originally condemn the IRS activity — why were people punished?” asked a House GOP aide. “They can’t have it both ways. They can’t both express outrage and then say that questions being raised are phony.”
Pfeiffer and Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling for an hour fielded questions ranging from the president’s pick to lead the Federal Reserve — they didn’t tip Obama’s hand — his recent criticisms of the Keystone XL pipeline and even the political circus known as the race for New York City mayor.
The president raised eyebrows Tuesday when he suggested that the Keystone pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries, would create only 50 permanent jobs. Obama has still not revealed whether he will approve the project, which has divided environmentalists and labor unions.
“One infrastructure project is not a jobs strategy,” Pfeiffer said, explaining Obama’s recently tough rhetoric on Keystone. “That would be like saying, ‘Our jobs strategy is repairing the Key Bridge.’”
Republicans argue that such claims run counter to Obama’s push for shovel-ready jobs and his broader appeal to the middle class.
Aside from throwing cold water on recent controversies, Obama’s series of campaign-style events has been about shaping the argument ahead of the fall’s fiscal feuds. Congress faces an October deadline to keep the government funded and again must decide whether to increase the nation’s borrowing capacity before it hits its debt ceiling sometime in November.
The White House is arguing that Republicans are so focused on austerity measures that they ignore the true costs of their preferred budget cuts.
“What we see, particularly in the House of Representatives, is that pro-growth fiscal policy is turned on its head,” Sperling argued. “You’re hurting growth in the short term; you’re leaving no room to invest in the things that are critical to productivity and middle-class wages.”
Surrounded by a room full of political reporters, Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior messenger, was forced to weigh in on another political scandal that has no end in sight.
Asked whether Anthony Weiner’s campaign for New York City mayor — marred by a new sexting scandal — had become a distraction for the White House and other Democrats, Pfeiffer replied, “If you think about the array of issues we’ve talked about today, one that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about is the New York mayor’s race.”