The Rose Garden: Bush-Era Issues Trump Obama Spin

Posted April 24, 2009 at 6:21pm

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs can be a masterful performer on the podium, redefining tough questions into ones he likes better, responding to others at length in his Alabama cadence — without necessarily providing an actual answer — while on other occasions parsing out some nuggets of valuable information. And the Obama communications team has already absorbed the successful strategy — originally perfected by President Ronald Reagan — of spoon-feeding a daily message to the clamoring press.

[IMGCAP(1)]But last week, the Obama White House spin machine was instead recycling the Bush administration, buffeted well off message in part by its own mistakes. Instead of President Barack Obama’s grand plans for the future and his heroic effort to rescue the economy — the subject of so much ink and talk since Inauguration Day — the topic of the week was the interrogation policies of former President George W. Bush.

The week had been carefully mapped out some time in advance. Monday was Fiscal Responsibility Day, with Obama convening his very first Cabinet meeting and authoritatively instructing his most senior advisers to get to work deleting $100 million from the budget — and don’t forget to report back with the results. Tuesday was Volunteerism Day, a carefully choreographed performance that included an appearance by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. Then a trek to a local school, with Kennedy in tow, where the president signed legislation named for Kennedy that enlarged the AmeriCorps volunteer program. Jordan’s King Abdullah II also stopped by for a visit to make this partially Middle East Peacemaker Day.

Wednesday was Earth Day, so Obama seized the opportunity with a trip to Iowa to tout his energy and environmental agenda. Thursday was Credit Card Debtors Assistance Day featuring, on behalf of American consumers, a dressing down in the Roosevelt Room of the credit card company executives who like to pile on all those late fees. And Friday was Education Day, highlighted by an event designed to showcase ways to make college more affordable.

So what did the week in fact look like? All Bush-era interrogation programs, all the time. While some argue whether torture is the right word for the programs, none would contend that it was the incorrect term to describe the week endured by the White House press office.

The theme had actually kicked off the week before with the White House decision to release memos providing the rationales for the interrogations, despite what reportedly was a warning from CIA Director and veteran Washington hand Leon Panetta that such a move would amount to a big-time stirring of the pot.

On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said those who authored the memos would not be prosecuted. On Monday, Gibbs backed him up. Tuesday morning, Obama pulled the rug out from beneath both men, saying he would at least be open to letting the Justice Department nail the memo writers. By Tuesday afternoon’s briefing, the press smelled blood, and Gibbs was left at an unusual loss for words — good ones, anyway — ending up telling reporters that they should listen to the president instead of him or Emanuel.

And now the procession of off-message news stories began. “Probes of Bush Officials Loom,— screamed a headline on the Wall Street Journal Web page. The New York Times ran its own big article, too — on the Bush administration. The theme of White House coverage and questioning was similarly set for the week.

By Friday, Gibbs was clearly wearing down. He’d finished coming up with new material and started throwing out the same bones reporters had been gnawing on all week.

“The president believes that it is important to look forward and not to look backward,— Gibbs intoned. The president, Gibbs added, believes “this should be a moment of reflection and not retribution.—

He overtly mourned his loss of the message.

“I started out the week saying it — I’ll probably end it saying it — that if people knowingly broke the law, no one’s above it,— he lamented.

“Seemingly the White House’s briefing room time is taken up by what is the dominion of Congress,— Gibbs observed, an apparent reference to the idea of a “truth commission— to investigate Bush’s Memogate.

Meanwhile, looking to freshen up an aging story, some reporters began repeating themselves, too.

“I try not to take it personally when I have to repeat these answers, like, seven times, but I’m happy to do it an eighth,— Gibbs said wearily. “There undoubtedly seems to be confusion. I’ll let you render judgment on its legitimacy.—

The effort to redirect the focus to the future seemed to annoy Helen Thomas who, having witnessed several decades of White House history, demanded to know what was wrong with learning from it.

“Doesn’t [Obama] believe in history?— Thomas demanded. “What is this?—

Gibbs threw long, a Hail Mary designed to recoup the message.

“We don’t doubt that we can learn from history,— he said. “But there’s an economic crisis, there’s a crisis in unemployment, there’s a financial stability crisis, there’s a home foreclosure crisis.—

The pass was incomplete.

“Does the president stand by everything he said, on the interrogation issue, in the Oval Office on Tuesday?— his next questioner wondered.

Even as the Bush interrogation program dominated the news, there was a brief shining moment for the press office. Proliferating on newsstands and in mailboxes was a copy of the Washingtonian magazine featuring on its cover a shirtless Obama and a headline declaring what seemed apparent: “Our New Neighbor Is Hot.—