By Jules Witcover
10:47 AM EDT, May 20, 2013
As it must come to all American presidents, it seems, Barack Obama's policy agenda is being crowded out of the headlines by the imperative of damage control against administration scandal.
The allegations of incompetence or worse in the IRS' targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, the Justice Department snooping on Associated Press reporters, and the State-CIA dispute over the origins of the Benghazi terrorist attacks comprise a three-pronged firestorm demanding swift smothering.
The Obama administration will continue to pursue immigration reform and policy objectives requiring bipartisan support in Congress. But until the flames of scandal are doused or least reduced to sparks, the focus at the White House and on Capitol Hill will be diverted by what Mr. Obama has called sideshows.
The handbook of damage control dictates that the first thing a president must do is act quickly to get every aspect of any scandal out in the open. Mr. Obama, after initially merely deploring the reports of ineptness or malfeasance, responded to the public outrage with the firing of a top IRS official.
Regarding the other two flare-ups, he settled for releasing a horde of e-mails concerning the Benghazi flap but declined to apologize for the AP intrusion. Instead, he said the spying was essential to protect national security in a critical foreign policy leak. What he does next will determine how soon scandal over his second term will dissipate.
Every administration going back at least to the days of Harry Truman has sooner or later been required to call out the fire engines. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all had to cope with allegations of cronyism or staff gift-taking of one sort or another. They culminated, famously, in the granddaddy of all scandals — Watergate.
Richard Nixon and his collection of rogues threw out the damage-control handbook by violating every axiom therein. They bluffed, stalled and lied their way through the two years from the break-in of the Democratic National Committee in June of 1972 until Nixon's forced resignation in August of 1974. By that time the dogs of impeachment were closing in on him.
Along the way, Nixon and Co. tried every dodge they could think of, from personal intimidations, doctoring of White House tape transcriptions, even Nixon's own declaration that "I am not a crook" before his house of corruption collapsed on him.
Since then, the art of damage control has been studied and practiced with much greater nuance and effectiveness by some succeeding administrations. Jimmy Carter was shown to be more naive than corrupt in the ways of Washington; Ronald Reagan managed to escape the worst political consequences of the Iran-Contra fiasco with his personal smile and a shoeshine.
Bill Clinton, for all his linguistic somersaults on what "the meaning of is, is" and House impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky affair, ultimately survived to finish his second term. He did so not so much through damage control as by the nose-holding beneficence of enough Senate Democrats to acquit him of lying under oath before a grand jury.
George W. Bush through two terms controlled the damage of his ill-conceived invasion of Iraq and its aftermath by selling the existence of weapons of mass destruction that weren't there. Thereafter he kept public dissent under control by whipping up and sustaining good old American patriotism.
Arguably and ironically, the junior Bush won a second term in part because his opponent, Democrat John Kerry, failed to offer timely damage control against smears of his decorated combat service in the Vietnam War.
Considering the obvious intentions of Mr. Obama's Republican foes in Congress to use the current scandals to derail his second-term policy aspirations, damage control will have to remain high on this administration's agenda, over the next weeks at least. Congressional committees are lining up to take a crack at him in headline-grabbing hearings.
If he hopes for significant achievements in the time left to him in the Oval Office, he will need to follow a two-track agenda, cooperating with these inquiries with candor while pressing on with his domestic objectives such as immigration reform, job creation and economic recovery.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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