Even from 2,300 miles away and across the ideological gap that separates him from President Obama, Republican Ken Khachigian can recognize the signs and even feel a little empathy for the Democratic incumbent at perhaps the lowest point of his presidency. Khachigian was there at the White House from 1970 to 1974 to watch another president cope with scandal.
“You feel besieged. You feel defensive, especially when things are coming in from all directions,” he told National Journal from his Southern California home, recalling his days watching President Nixon deal with Watergate. “You do feel embattled. And it can distort, to some extent, your perception and your ability to get things done.”
Watergate, of course, stands alone in the pantheon of presidential scandals. Despite the tendency of the opposition party to hype any presidential hiccup over the past four decades as “bigger than Watergate,” there really is only one Watergate. The comparisons this time are just as bogus as when Democrats similarly tried to elevate the Iran-Contra scandal. But there is one way in which modern-day imbroglios can almost top Watergate. That is the pressure. In 1974, we had no cable news, no Internet, and little in the way of political talk radio. “It’s even more difficult today, because today you’ve got 24/7, nonstop media, and the blogosphere and Twitter,” Khachigian said. “Today, there is no break. It’s just incessant.”
That ubiquitous scrutiny makes it even more important that a president remain resolute and clear-eyed about his mission. It is critical that he look bigger than his critics. And, as is always the case in politics, that he project optimism about his leadership.
It is in that regard that Obama has faltered in the days since the story of the misdeeds at the IRS broke, cranking up the political and media intensity. One can argue whether the White House was too slow to respond and stanch the bleeding. In some ways, that is a question for lawyers, who can debate how cautious a president must be in responding to such allegations. But it is hard to disagree that this president has lost his footing in the way he presents himself.
Optimism is a vastly underrated component of a successful presidency. Voters tend to reject presidents who are dour or who talk of malaise. They reward those like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who offer hope and grand promises. Obama must know this. It was in many ways the basis of his improbable campaign success in 2008. And even today, beset by controversies and investigations, he pays it rhetorical service. But the message is decidedly mixed.
This week, he fled briefly to New York City and friendly audiences of Democratic donors. There, he spoke glowingly of the resilience and spirit he saw in Boston and in West, Texas, after the tragedies there. “I’ve probably never been more optimistic about America,” he declared. But, more tellingly, he painted a depressing picture of the state of affairs in Washington and the state of his own presidency. “I sure want to do some governing,” Obama said, almost pitiably. “I want to get some stuff done. I don’t have a lot of time. I’ve got three and a half years left, and it goes by like that.”
And he wasn’t shy about placing the fault on others. “The dynamic on the other side of the aisle right now runs contrary to what we need in order to succeed. They’ve got a different point of view right now, reinforced by some folks around the country that don’t share our vision for America.” At a separate speech to big-name donors there, he was even more specific, leaving no doubt that Rush Limbaugh and other radio talkers deserve blame for his presidential failings.
Obama admitted that his theory about what would follow from his reelection was wrong. He thought the vote would cure Republicans of what he sees as their knee-jerk opposition to anything he proposed, once the prospect of ousting him from office was gone. “My thinking was when we beat them in 2012, that might break the fever,” he said. “And it’s not quite broken yet.” (He made the same mistake out of the gate in 2009.) Taking aim at his biggest tormentor on the airwaves, the president added, “I genuinely believe there are Republicans out there who would like to work with us, but they’re fearful of their base and they’re concerned about what Rush Limbaugh might say about them.”
He delivered a similar message the day before to Ohio State University graduates, warning them of the “voices that do their best to gum up the works.” It is a message that suggests almost a weary defeatism in a White House only four months removed from a hopeful Inauguration Day. Even amid scandal, controversy, and investigations, it is the wrong approach for a president first elected on the strength of his inspirational “Yes, we can” message.
“It is a mistake for him to say how tough it is to get anything done in Washington, and how his critics and enemies are out to sabotage anything he wants,” says veteran political analyst William Schneider, who is with the moderate Democratic group Third Way. “There is truth in it, but he would do best not to talk about it.” Every president, Schneider noted, hits a low point. “Things look like they are falling apart in Washington, and the president looks trapped. That comes with the job. You can’t control events.”
But a successful president has to appear in control of events, or at least on top of them. If people think their president has lost that control, they get frightened. And if Obama lets that perception take hold, he may look back on this week with a deep regret, and perhaps an abiding sense of a moment lost.