There is no curse on the second term of presidents. When presidents lose credibility, when trust vanishes and their word is no longer accepted, they have only themselves to blame. That was true for President Nixon, among many others, and now it’s true for President Obama.
In confronting the Benghazi and IRS scandals, Obama has relied on the three tactics favored by politicians in trouble: lies, spin, and obfuscation. The main objective is to mislead the press and public. A lesser aim is to sidetrack the controversies and reduce them to a debate over tangential issues.
• Lies. Even when he’s been publicly corrected, Obama repeats mistruths. At his press conference last week, the president spoke of the attack on the American facility in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. “The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism,” Obama said. Only he hadn’t.
What Obama actually said in the Rose Garden on September 12 was: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” It was a generic mention of terror, not directed at the Benghazi attack.
We know this because Obama was interviewed immediately after his Rose Garden statement by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes. “Do you believe that this was a terrorist attack?” Kroft asked. “Well, it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved, but obviously it was an attack on Americans,” Obama answered.
Obama also insisted at his press conference that no one knew “what was taking place during the course of these first few days” after the attack. But Greg Hicks, who became acting U.S. ambassador to Libya upon the death of Chris Stevens, and others on the ground in Libya, plus various intelligence officials, did. And only five days before the president’s session with reporters last week, Hicks said in highly publicized testimony on Capitol Hill that he knew from day one it was an al Qaeda-backed terrorist attack.
On the IRS scandal, the president’s initial reaction was to shift potential blame away from himself and his administration by characterizing the IRS as an “independent agency.” It’s not and never has been. Obama referred to the IG investigation of the IRS without mentioning it was being conducted by a Treasury Department inspector general. Was Obama unaware of Treasury’s role? He must have figured out the IRS wasn’t independent by the time he fired its acting director last week.
• Spin. This involves a statement that’s partially true, but distorted to the benefit of the spinner. The president, again in the press conference, said he “sent up the head of our National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, up to Capitol Hill and [he] specifically said it was an act of terrorism and that extremist elements inside of Libya had been involved in it.”
Olsen did testify as Obama recounted, but not because he was “sent up” by the president. Olsen had been long scheduled to appear at the September 19 hearing on cyber-security. And it was only in answer to a question—not in his prepared testimony—that Olsen said the Benghazi attack was an “act of terrorism” carried out at least partly by “extremist elements.”
This trapped the White House into conceding the obvious the next day, September 20. Aboard Air Force One, Press Secretary Jay Carney said it is “self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.” This was news. The press pooler immediately called from the plane to report it. No less than the New York Times was clear why it was important: “Until now, White House officials have not used that language in describing the assault.” For that, we have Matt Olsen, not Obama, to thank.
To defend himself, the president has turned to a familiar trope, that he’s serious and his critics are playing “political games.” The issue of the now-discredited Benghazi talking points has become a “sideshow,” Obama said. While he’s protecting our diplomats in dangerous places, his critics “dishonor them when we turn things like [Benghazi] into a political circus.” Arguing that I’m okay, my opponents aren’t—that’s classic spin.
• Obfuscation. This is used to turn a scandal into a squabble by focusing it on peripheral issues. The White House tried this by leaking a single email to a reporter in order to raise questions about the accuracy of another reporter’s quotation from a different email. That’s pretty small stuff, and it lasted one news cycle.
Then last week the White House, under duress, released 100 pages of Benghazi-related emails. With this, the media may concentrate coverage on who weakened the talking points, the CIA or the State Department? Pursuit of that question would keep the press away from Obama to the delight of the White House.
Such tactics are substitutes for telling the truth. Candor is risky. The truth could incriminate. For Obama, the restoration of trust—the willingness of the press and public to believe him—seems distant. As for a second-term curse, it wouldn’t apply in Obama’s case even if it existed. Benghazi and the IRS scandal occurred in his first term.