Last Friday presidential communications director Dan Pfeiffer posted a diatribe on the White House blog. Did it point to an undercover part of the administration’s reelection campaign, a secret social media section assigned not just to rebut charges but to discredit critics?
The post was the now-famous mistaken denial that the president had ever had a bust of Winston Churchill – the one that Tony Blair gave to George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks – returned to the British embassy in Washington. This act has been widely interpreted as a gratuitous snub of our closest ally.
It was not quite as graceless as the president walking out on a private White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with words to the effect of, when you have something useful to say, you know where to find me.
Nor was it as clueless as, during Mr. Obama’s first visit to London as president, giving British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a box of U.S. movie DVD’s incompatible with standard British players.
Nor was it as strategically consequential as cancelling without notice the missile defense installations that Poland and the Czech Republic had – at considerable political cost to their governments – agreed to allow the U.S. to base within their borders.
Still, it was a first, small sign that Mr. Obama’s presidency had little regard for America’s traditional allies, and might even view them at best dismissively, at worst almost with hostility.
So, apparently, the White House was eager to wipe the fingerprints from the mirror. Put it all behind them, as Washington PR people say.
The only problem was, that Mr. Pfeiffer’s denial turned out to be wrong. The White House had in fact returned the bust given after the 2001 attacks by the British government, not moved it to the residential area of the executive mansion, as the communications director had maintained in his post. Mr. Pfeiffer issued a second post correcting the first.
My interest here is not in the sloppy staff work that seems endemic to this administration, as when the president gave a speech to Congress that attributed passages of the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution. You would have thought the president himself would have caught that error, but he is busy. He may have been tired and distracted at the time. And even so, it is a serious breakdown of staff work when the president has to be relied on the catch such junior-high-grade mistakes.
No, my interest is in the tone of Mr. Pfeiffer’s two posts.
The first one – the one that said the bust could be found in the presidential residence – called the “rumor” of the return “so patently false,” a “ridiculous claim” that was “100% false,” a claim that “[n]ews outlets have debunked… time and again,” adding “[h]opefully this clears things up a bit and prevents folks from making this ridiculous claim again.”
The second post kept up the aggressive tone, even as it, again in Washington PR terms, walked back the misstatement. “I have received a bunch of questions – so let me provide some additional info,” Director Pfeiffer wrote. Then he took about a hundred words to say, effectively, I was wrong, but it was Bush’s fault. The charges that the bust’s return reflected the president’s “antipathy toward the British is completely false and an urban legend that continues to circulate to this day.”
My point here is that there is a familiarity to Mr. Pfeiffer’s charges. He isn’t just denying that the president harbors ill will to an essential ally. It is that critics are factually wrong at best and lying and viciously smearing the administration generally and the president personally. Even when Mr. Pfeiffer has to acknowledge he is wrong, he keeps up the attack on, essentially, the character of White House’s critics.
Now, we’ve heard this continuing assault from the Obama campaign on the character of the opposition and especially Republican nominee-in-waiting Mitt Romney over the last several months. Pointing out any fact that casts the president in an unfavorable light makes the writer himself a target of administration artillery fire, challenging not just his facts but his integrity, even worthiness to participate in public discourse.
So here I return to my opening question, about an undercover campaign. Have you noticed the comment sections of political blogs? I have become more aware of them of late, as my White House Writers Group colleagues and I have taken turns with weekly postings at another site that includes a comment section.
There, as well as elsewhere, postings critical of the president are quickly met with a reply that follows Mr. Pfeiffer’s pattern of attacking facts, so far as I can tell with the same sloppy staff work. Despite their vehemence, the attackers have yet to flag an actual mistake. Like Mr. Pfeiffer, they use the fact attacks directly or indirectly to question character. Do similar styles reflect common origin?
It has been reported that Mr. Obama has 2,000 campaign workers assigned to social and online media. I wonder, what are they doing? Do their assignments include never letting any point go unanswered, even those in online and blog postings? Without acknowledging their campaign connections, are new media operatives swarming over news and opinion sites?
In short, is the president’s reelection operation conducting a campaign, not just to inform the conversation but to control it, by discrediting all critics?