While President Obama has been under attack from some quarters for failing to live up to the liberal fantasy presidents of Aaron Sorkin, the man himself has apparently fantasizing about "going Bulworth." In The American President and The West Wing, the President is always a perfect blend of rationality and empathy: someone who is controlled by facts, but not so cold as to not be able to win over political opponents with jocularity and/or empathy and/or calls to better angels. But as candidate Obama said way back in 2007, "Ultimately I am an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams." And so, The New York Times' Peter Baker reports in today's paper, Obama's turned to his own fantasies of being President. His dream is based on a more cynical view of politics, based on a movie in which a California senator hires his own assassin, and thus feels free to be drunk at campaign events, smoke weed, rap, and say offensive things, all of which captures the public's heart before he is assassinated by an insurance industry lobbyist for pushing health care reform. "In private, [Obama] has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought." Why would Obama find this movie version of politics so much more compelling than either his reality or the Sorkin soft-focus utopia? Today's news might be a good case study.
Obama's presidency was declared dead by the press on Tuesday ("The town is turning on President Obama — and this is very bad news for this White House," Politico said) and it is being declared alive after all on Thursday, though some reporters are slightly behind their peers. Obama has decided to "take control" of the three scandals facing the administration this week: IRS agents' targeting of conservative groups, the Justice Department's subpoenaing of Associated Press records, and the Benghazi talking points. In the first controversy, Obama has looked decisive by firing the acting commissioner of the IRS, Steven Miller. But the facts we know so far show this was not justice being done. Miller, who has worked for the IRS for 25 years, was not in charge when targeting of conservative groups happened. The Treasury Department investigation shows that when supervisors found out about the practices, they took steps to stop it. Nevertheless, here are objective reporters nakedly applauding Obama for firing Miller for purely symbolic reasons:
- "After suffering hits from Beltway elites for missteps in handling "the perfect storm" of controversies, the West Wing got its mojo back ... with the resignation of the acting IRS Commissioner, release of Benghazi emails," Politico's Mike Allen writes.
- "After days under siege, President Obama has sprung into action to confront three alleged scandals that Republicans are slamming as evidence of abuse of power and cover-ups. In a multipronged attack on the Republicans, the president ... sought to portray himself as decisive and with nothing to hide," Agence France Press' Stephen Collinson writes.
- "In recent days, Democratic strategists have all but begged President Barack Obama to take control of a deepening public relations disaster that threatens to derail his second-term agenda. On Wednesday evening, Obama did just that," Politico's Jennifer Epstein says.
The instant pivot from analysis of the facts of the three cases to analysis of Obama's unmeasurable political capital is happening because it's really hard to tie Obama to the controversies beyond the catchall bucks-stops-here logic that puts the President on the hook for everything that happens in the federal government. The closest Republicans came to drawing a direct line from the White House to mistakes made in Benghazi was the ABC News' summary of emails (which later were revealed to be someone's not-fully-accurate notes rather than the actual emails) between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department over the talking points. The White House released 100 pages of emails, which showed that it was actually the CIA that took out references to terror threats before the Benghazi attack. On the Tea Party tax audit scandal, the law bars White House interference with the IRS. For the overbroad subpoenas of AP reporters, the highest-ranking official who knew the Justice Department would breach its own guidelines to get reporters' phone records was Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole.
But not everyone is on board with the idea that Obama has turned a corner. The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty writes, "The most corrosive political scandals are the ones that feed a preexisting story line — which is why the White House could have difficulty putting the current ones behind it any time soon." (This is a popular theory. The case for it is usually about how the Monica Lewinsky scandal consumed Bill Clinton's presidency because he had a reputation for being a womanizer. However, this analysis struggles under the thought experiment "What would happen if Obama had sex with an intern in the Oval Office?" Despite Obama's lack of a reputation for womanizing, would that report not also consume his presidency?) On MSNBC's Morning Joe on Thursday, Donnie Deutsch gave advice to Republicans on how to keep the scandals going by tailoring the narrative for people like Donnie Deutsch. "Stop selling evil — sell incompetence," Deutsch said. Republicans should take Benghazi, the IRS, and the AP scandals together and "wrap it up in a red bow" to say that "these people have fallen and they can't get up."