Obama's charm offensive has its limits

March 12, 2013 

— It’s week two of the president’s charm offensive, and already there is dissension in the ranks.

Jay Carney, the occasionally charming spokesman for the newly charming president, began his daily media briefing Monday with a smile, a sunny disposition and a bit of percussion on the lectern. Bum-ba-da-bum-bum, he drummed with his hands.

“Happy Monday!” began Carney, wearing a festive yellow tie and striking a casual pose. “Good afternoon. Thanks for being here for your White House briefing. Spring is here early.”

But it was not long before the White House press secretary was back in his winter of discontent. The first questioner, the Associated Press’ Jim Kuhnhenn, asked Carney to square President Obama’s “charm offensive” with his decision to speak this week to the highly partisan Organizing for Action group.

“I think you’re misrepresenting the group,” Carney informed Kuhnhenn.

NPR’s Mara Liasson asked him a question about Obama’s yet-to-be-released budget. “Mara, the way you phrase that question, you know, makes me think that you’re still working on a typewriter or something,” Carney told the 57-year-old radio correspondent.

He further informed ABC News’ Ann Compton that she had a mistaken understanding of the president’s meetings this week with lawmakers. And when CBS’ Bill Plante pressed him on when Obama would release a budget (it was supposed to have been done last month), Carney leaned to argue.

“I challenge virtually every premise of your question,” he told Plante. “I don’t know what your question is here,” he said when Plante tried to ask it in a different way.

“Bill, how long have you been covering Washington?” Carney asked the 75-year-old newsman when he persisted in inquiring about the tardiness of the budget. “Has there ever been a presidential budget that was enacted, word for word, into law?”

NBC’s Chuck Todd broke in, telling Carney that a president never waits until after the House and the Senate introduce budgets to introduce his own.

“Well, I disagree with that,” Carney snapped.

This might be called putting the “offense” in charm offensive.


It was a caution to those swept away by the notion that an entirely new and amiable Obama White House has suddenly emerged: Charm is hard.

The offensive began last week, when Obama took a dozen Republican senators to the Jefferson Hotel for a meal of blue crab risotto, lobster Thermidor, sea bass and the like. Next, he invited House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to the White House for some more sea bass. This week, Obama is expected to pay three visits to Capitol Hill.

At the same time, White House reporters say they’ve noticed a softening in Obama advisers’ tone since Bob Woodward’s public spat with White House official Gene Sperling. The phone calls and emails from the president’s aides have become less confrontational and less vulgar, they say.

The charm offensive – both toward lawmakers and reporters – is a welcome development. But the meals and the House (and Senate) calls don’t necessarily mean things will change. Obama might have had a nice lunch with Ryan last week, but on Monday, Carney blasted Ryan’s Medicare proposal anew. “This debate was had over the previous year and a half, and I think the American people were categorically opposed to the approach that says that we should voucherize Medicare,” he said.

Carney also vigorously defended Obama’s decision to speak to Organizing for Action, a group of former Obama staffers and donors using his re-election campaign’s infrastructure to pressure Republicans to support his agenda.

“I’m wondering whether there’s potentially a mixed message there,” the AP’s Kuhnhenn said to Carney, “because last week, OFA sent out an email … calling Republicans obstructionists, blaming them for the sequester, saying if only they had voted for closing tax loopholes, the public wouldn’t be in this jam.”

Carney smiled, charmingly. “Republicans made a choice,” he said. “The sequester is here, it’s being implemented as a result of the choice made on Capitol Hill by Republicans.”

As for cooperating with Republicans, Carney argued that Obama’s agenda is inherently bipartisan and that it is up to Republicans to sign on. “There’s nothing partisan about deficit reduction,” he said. “There’s nothing partisan about comprehensive immigration reform. … I would argue that there’s nothing partisan about common-sense solutions to reduce gun violence in America.”

If these claims weren’t strange enough, the moment was made more absurd by the ringing of a Japanese cameraman’s cellphone, which broadcast a loud message in Japanese that competed with Carney’s voice.

Washington Post Writers Group

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