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Keeping on Top of Priorities When White House Deals With Drama

May 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Obama administration has been hit with a wave of crises and scandals lately. Jeffrey Brown talks with Tom Perriello from Center for American Progress Action Fund and strategist Ron Christie, who worked on Capitol Hill in the George W. Bush administration, about handling drama without losing sight of presidential priorities.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we return to our look at the Obama administration under pressure.

We get takes now from both parties.

Democrat Tom Perriello is president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He served as a member of Congress in Virginia, before losing his seat in the tea party wave. And Republican strategist and author Ron Christie, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and on Capitol Hill.

Welcome to both of you.

RON CHRISTIE, Christie Strategies: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ron Christie, let me start with you — first, your reaction to what we just heard from Jennifer Palmieri.

RON CHRISTIE: Well, I think the White House is trying to project that they’re still doing business as usual.

She talked about all the different priorities that the administration was still pursuing. The problem that you have with this situation that I learned in my four years in the White House is that when you have the media sort of buzzing around you looking for an angle or looking a particular take, as we see with the various scandals engulfing this White House, it’s really difficult to get things accomplished.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom, I said your name wrong, I think. Perriello. I’m sorry.

TOM PERRIELLO, Center for American Progress Fund: I have heard worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have heard worse.

What’s your — what’s response to what you heard first?

TOM PERRIELLO: Well, after a really rough start of the week, I think you have seen a pretty impressive couple of days trying to show that the president is still continuing to focus on very important issues, including heads of states that are visiting.

You really want to not err in either of two directions, one, become so obsessed with the scandals that you stop doing other things, or, two, act like all these other things are so important that you seem to not be taking the scandals seriously.

And I think what you see here is, they have come out. He’s been in front of the camera. He’s been willing to ask questions. He’s made it clear to his staff and to the country that he’s going to get to the bottom of this and he’s taking actions accordingly. And I think that’s why people are seeing this potentially actually as a sign of leadership and the kind of no-drama approach that people expect.

JEFFREY BROWN: The no-drama approach, but in a week of drama. Right? So, that’s the question. Are they in a kind of — how do you handle a sort of full crisis mode without stoking the crisis?

RON CHRISTIE: Well, I think what Tom said is exactly right.

In a situation like, the president needs to continue to go out. He needs to continue to talk to the American people and to lay out his vision of, frankly, how he’s going to move beyond this series of scandals that he’s engulfed in. I think if he’s successful in continuing to do that, then people will look to him and says, well, he’s leading, he’s actually moving the ball forward.

But if he doesn’t, I think he’s in danger of being enveloped by what’s going on, and that could tarnish his ability to get something done in the second term.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what do you see happening so far? Because he’s being hit not just with one, but several — on several fronts.

RON CHRISTIE: Well, I think it’s too soon to say.

I mean, I certainly do think that it’s a distraction for this White House and it’s a distraction for the president, but the fact remains that there’s no real smoking gun yet on this IRS story. The AP story seems to be a little more of an inside the Beltway look.

The one that I think is going to resonate, though, is the IRS. I that is the one that your folks who are watching here are going to say, the IRS could tax me. The IRS could audit me. And I think that is the one that is really going to resonate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you agree with that, that that is the one of these that hits people?

TOM PERRIELLO: Well, I think we know, because the Benghazi conversation has been going on for quite some time, it’s not one that has resonated very strongly across the country.

It’s also one where, with the recent e-mails, it really seems to undermine some of the more dramatic claims that were being made by Republicans on the Hill. So, I think part of what they may do is try to take these one at a time and say, here are the facts. Let’s walk this and see what is real and what’s a claim.

I do think, obviously, the IRS is something everyone understands. Not everyone understands what it means to go through a 501(c)(4) process, which is different than I think what most people hear, which is the idea of being audited or targeted by the IRS. So, we will see how this plays out.

But this is obviously also in a context where you have this tremendous information about sexual assault in the military. You have the impacts of the sequester, and most people are going to look about what does this mean in my life in terms of jobs and the economy? Is Congress focusing on that and other things?

So, I think it’s going to be important to walk through these and take them very seriously, but I think it’s going to be important for the president and Republicans on the Hill not to be seen as focusing on these at the expense of these bread-and-butter issues for American families.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Benghazi, just to take one example, yesterday the White House puts out all these e-mails that Republicans had requested.

And yet today we see your side saying, great, but he needs to do more. Is there ever enough? People from the White House would be saying, what could we possibly do to allow us to move on?

RON CHRISTIE: Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s enough.

The e-mails aren’t enough. I think the American people deserve to know, what was the president doing that night? What actions did he take? He said that when he found out, he immediately took action. We don’t know what actions he has taken.

Number two, we still don’t really know what the secretary of state was doing that night, either. We know that she spoke to Mr. Hicks around 2:00 a.m. Benghazi time and then she wasn’t around when he called back to report the death of the ambassador. So, I think Republicans are going to continue to press. They’re going to continue to look for more information about what our leaders were doing, what they should have been doing, and where the breakdowns took place.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you expect that? I mean, I guess the White House expects that as well.


I think what we know from the Congress and particularly from the chairmen involved is that there’s no expectation that this will go away or disappear. I think the question is the interest level and whether the right questions are being asked.

These are important things to get to the bottom of. But I also think most Americans say, hey, are we more focused on the talking points from the past or on embassy security going forward? And I think hopefully from all of this we can have proactive conversations in each of these cases about where failures occurred, whether that was in diplomatic security or in management at the IRS. What’s a proactive strategy to make this not happen again?

And I think Americans will be more interested in focusing on, hey, how do we solve these problems, problems that affect me, than how do we score points about …

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you’re both talking about problem-solving and not scoring points, but the context here, we were talking about this earlier today in our editorial meeting, thinking about past moments like this.

But now you have a 24-hour news cycle. You have constant talk. You have the White House feeling the pressure at every moment. So that’s the context here. And you guys are part of it, too, right?

RON CHRISTIE: We’re guilty as charged, unfortunately.

No, my advice — you’re right. But my advice to this White House and this administration is, in order for these sorts of things to stop, is to be as transparent as possible, to put out as much information as possible. If it continues to drip out, I think they’re going to continue to find themselves engulfed in this. And that’s my advice. Just get it out and let the American people decide.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the question of — there’s the second-term question, right? Often, this kind of thing happens. And then there’s the larger agenda of a second term. You’re suggesting that he still has the ability to carry out what he wants to do.

TOM PERRIELLO: Sure, I think — well, that’s going to be the question.

There’s this potential theory here where conservatives were able to score points with their base from some of these things and maybe therefore have more room on issues like the budget and issues like immigration reform. But we will see.

I think this is going to be a question of statesmanship and leadership on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. I certainly think the president should be committed — and I believe he is committed — to continuing to focus on incredibly serious issues from the economy, to Syria, to other national security threats.

I think that their challenge is going to be to both show that they’re clearly addressing this — and I think they have set a very strong tone on that in the last couple of days — and not losing sight of these things that are the priorities for the American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is there one — last word here — is there an area that you think there might be a focus, where both sides might come together to get something done?

RON CHRISTIE: I do. I think Tom is right.

I think the budget issues facing this country are really, really a very important issue to focus on. And I think there’s enough willingness by the administration on one side and congressional Republicans to come together to find a deal, and same with immigration.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ron Christie and Tom Perriello, we start — we will end on a high note, I guess, huh?

JEFFREY BROWN: Thanks very much.

TOM PERRIELLO: Well, we can agree, anyway.

RON CHRISTIE: We can agree, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Thanks so much.

RON CHRISTIE: Thank you.