President Lyndon Johnson said, “being president is like being a jackass in a hailstorm. There’s nothing to do but to stand there and take it.” And yet for all the ways President Obama is seeking to reignite the legacy of LBJ, on this point he would heartily disagree. Rather than accept any form of criticism, especially from the press, this thin-skinned White House is going out of its way to stifle dissent.
This growing, troublesome trend has come to a head in the wake of the sequester. It all began when long-time journalism legend, Bob Woodward, who made his bones reporting on the Watergate scandal, explained in his latest book that the sequester was the White House’s idea.
“My extensive reporting for my book ‘The Price of Politics’ shows that the automatic spending cuts were initiated by the White House and were the brainchild of [White House Chief of Staff Jack] Lew and White House congressional relations chief Rob Nabors – probably the foremost experts on budget issues in the senior ranks of the federal government,” Woodward writes in a follow-up article in the Washington Post. “Obama personally approved of the plan for Lew and Nabors to propose the sequester to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.”
The problem was that the truth got in the way of the political strategy that the White House was trying to create; namely, that these cuts were the fault of Congressional Republicans and thus they should bear the blame for any ill effects.
So what did the Obama Administration do? Well in public they ignored the truth altogether and continued their blame game strategy, trotting out various administration officials to lay down some trumped-up effects of cutting around 2 percent of the bloated $3.7 trillion budget. But behind closed doors they were stamp out the Woodward narrative.
Bob Woodward called a senior White House official last week to tell him that in a piece in that weekend’s Washington Post, he was going to question President Barack Obama’s account of how sequestration came about – and got a major-league brushback. The Obama aide “yelled at me for about a half hour,” Woodward told us.
The White House official turned out to be Gene Sperling, the Director of the National Economic Council, who later apologized in an email to Woodward. And perhaps that would be enough if this wasn’t part of the insulated, take-no-criticism approach of the Obama Administration. Indeed, other top-notch journalists have come out to defend Woodward through the ordeal.
“As editor in chief of National Journal, I received several e-mails and telephone calls from [a] White House official filled with vulgarity, abusive language, and virtually the same phrase that Politico characterized as a veiled threat,” wrote Ron Fournier. “Once I moved back to daily reporting this year, the badgering intensified.”
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank corroborated the disdain for any criticism.
“[T]here’s little argument that 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has become a frat house for the thing-skinned and the foul-mouthed,” writes Milbank. “I’ve received the same communications – and so has everybody else I know who has dealt with this White House. If this administration launched drone strikes at the rate Sperling and his colleagues launch F-bombs, there would be nobody left in Yemen.”
Yet another reporter, this time Lanny Davis, a liberal who previously served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton, explained the White House’s extortionary approach to media relations. Davis was writing a column called “Purple Nation” when a senior Obama Administration official called the editor of the paper and threatened to revoke the paper’s White House credentials unless Davis was fired.
Yes, this is a smaller subplot in a story that should be about the failure of President Obama to avert the sequester. But it’s an important one. The White House has taken on a persecution complex. It simply refuses to deal with opposition –whether it be from the press or Republicans – and instead opts to use its bully pulpit to shout down and demean its detractors. Americans deserve more from their president.