Probably the most telling part of President Obama’s appearance on 60 Minutes was when Steve Kroft asked questions about Obama’s habit of cracking Jokes when he is discussing the toughest problems the country is facing:
STEVE KROFT: You’re sitting here. And you’re– you are laughing. You are laughing about some of these problems. Are people going to look at this and say, “I mean, he’s sitting there just making jokes about (LAUGHTER) money–” How do you deal with– I mean, wh– explain –
STEVE KROFT:–the mood and your laughter.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yeah, I mean, there’s got to be–
STEVE KROFT: Are you punch drunk?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, no. There’s gotta be a little gallows humor to (LAUGHS) get you through the day. You know, sometimes my team– talks about the fact that if– if you had said to us a year ago that– the least of my problems would be Iraq, which is still a pretty serious problem– I don’t think anybody would have believed it. But– but we’ve got a lot on our plate. And– a lot of difficult decisions that we’re going to have to make.
Punch Drunk, nervous laughter what ever you want to call it , the real fact is that the President is beginning to realize how “over his head” he really is. Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard says its obvious that his Presidency is flailing.
You don’t have to be an old Washington hand to spot the telltale signs of a presidency and an administration in serious trouble. There’s nothing new about these clues. The inability to get their stories straight–that’s a hardy perennial of high-level officials caught in the vise of political embarrassment. A president who skips town to avoid the White House press corps and speak directly to the American people–we’ve sure seen that before. So in a sense the AIG mess has touched off nothing more than business as usual.
What goes on in Washington usually comes across as background noise to the public, but not this time. Bonuses for AIG executives are like the infamous Bridge to Nowhere–an issue that’s broken through outside Washington. And we know it’s become a major political problem for the president because he and his administration act as if it has.
Barnes that there are things that every administration does when they are in trouble. And Obama’s Administration is doing them now:
- His allies are moving to protect the president. In a political emergency, this is the highest obligation of everyone in the administration. The president must be distanced as far as possible from decisions that led to the problem, even if he is made to look out-of-touch or actually incompetent. In the AIG case, Obama is like a cuckolded spouse, portrayed by administration officials as the last person to learn about the bonuses, though he signed the economic stimulus legislation with a provision assuring they’d be paid. A front-page account in the Washington Post played along, absolving the entire administration of blame. Attributed to “government and company officials,” the story said Federal Reserve officials were at fault, having failed to alert anyone in the administration, much less Obama, in a timely fashion. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said he didn’t tell the White House until March 12, two days after he learned of bonuses totaling $165 million and the day before the checks went out. What could Obama do? He was “stunned,” the president told Jay Leno last week. Obama said he takes full responsibility for the mess. Then he went on to blame others.
- The president gets out of town. In the final stages of the Watergate scandal in 1974, President Nixon flew to Cairo, where he was greeted by one million Egyptians along the route of his motorcade. This prompted a question: Can a million Egyptians be wrong? The answer turned out to be yes. Nixon resigned a few weeks later. Okay, the AIG flap isn’t Watergate. But last week was a good time for Obama to skip town, mingle with worshipful fans, and dodge the (suddenly) unfriendly Washington media mob. The idea is to get through to the American people directly, without the press’s filtering his every word. So in California, he spoke to a town hall meeting, the preferred venue of presidents under political stress. He was interviewed by a sympathizer on talk radio, then by Jay Leno, who invariably makes his guests look good, then went to a research center for electric cars. He put off a White House press conference until the following week, when the AIG frenzy may have eased.
- Top spokesmen dismiss the crisis as a distraction. Anything the president doesn’t want to deal with or discuss, like AIG bonuses, is automatically a distraction from the important business the American people have elected him to focus on. And Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said AIG wasn’t just a minor distraction. As furious as Obama was over the bonuses, Emanuel said last week, the president’s “main priority is getting the financial system stabilized, and he believes this is a big distraction.”mThough David Axelrod, Obama’s White House political adviser, didn’t use the word “distraction,” the Washington Post reported that he was making the same point. “People are not sitting around their kitchen tables thinking about AIG,” he said. “They are thinking about their own jobs.” And that’s what Obama is thinking about.
- Administration figures can’t keep their stories straight. It’s easy to keep your story straight when you’re telling the truth. It gets harder when you’re not. Geithner initially said he learned of the AIG bonuses on March 10. He tried to give himself wiggle room by saying this was when he was informed about the size and scope of the bonuses. This isn’t true. It turns out he was questioned on March 3 by Democratic congressman Joe Crowley of New York in very specific terms about the bonuses. Crowley noted that AIG was “slated to pay an additional $162 million in bonuses to 393 participants in the coming weeks.” Geithner responded to Crowley that he “very much share[s] your concern” about the bonuses. But don’t try to square Geithner’s two statements. That would be a distraction. Democrat Chris Dodd of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, tied himself in knots denying his role in crafting the provision in the stimulus that kept the bonuses alive. One day he indicated he’d had nothing to do with inserting that provision in the bill. He wasn’t even on the Senate-House conference committee that put it in. The next day, he told a different story. Yes, he’d asked senators to include the provision, but he did so only because Treasury officials urged him to. No wonder Dodd is in reelection trouble.
- The president indulges in hyperbole. Presidents sometimes lose their rhetorical grip during a political controversy. Obama has. He went into high gear defending Geithner. With the exception of Alexander Hamilton, no Treasury secretary has “had to deal with the multiplicity of issues that Secretary Geithner has,” he said. “He is making all the right moves in terms of playing a bad hand.” Not only that, Obama likened the financial firms Geithner is dealing with to terrorists. “They’ve got a bomb strapped to them and they’ve got their hand on the trigger.”
One more thing. If Obama is showing the effects of a political crisis, how can he josh about basketball and bowling and other light subjects with Jay Leno? When in trouble, play to your strengths, such as being a likeable, regular guy. It worked with Leno. “Mr. President,” he said, “I must say this has been one of the best nights of my life.”