With the Obama administration battling the controversies surrounding the IRS’s auditing of conservative groups, the Justice Department’s seizure of reporters’ phone records, and government officials’ misleading statements on the Benghazi terrorist attack, the administration’s damage-control efforts are coming under scrutiny.
So, how should President Obama and his administration manage this complicated situation?
First, let’s get the diagnosis right. These scandals aren’t about the administration’s mishandling of sins — a series of cover-ups — as the meta-coverage suggests; they’re about the commission of the original sins and the culture that created them. There’s a belief held by many in the Obama administration that Barack Obama is uniquely chosen, that his enemies are uniquely corrupt, and that anything done in the service of what’s been called the “Obama Project” is justifiable in this battle against evil. That culture may be responsible for these scandals.
To complicate matters further, Obama’s relationship with the press is trickier than center-right politicos assume. Obama doesn’t like the press and journalists don’t love him. In this relationship, Obama is like a prom queen blessed by the gods with unusual grace and beauty — otherworldly even. Journalists are like members of the Audio Visual Club who long for a flicker of recognition from the prom queen, whose snubs only make them want her more.
These scandals pose a real threat to Obama — especially the ones involving the IRS and the DOJ — because they conjure up the kind of emotionally resonant archetypes of malice that have anchored popular entertainment for generations. But the fact that these government intrusions may have been carried out by people Obama managed — but without his knowledge — may be enough to save his political career.
Pinning the blame for these actions on low-level officials will certainly have to be the linchpin of his crisis-management strategy. It helps that this “It wasn’t me” narrative is the narrative that Obama’s defenders want, as opposed to one they will need to be persuaded to accept.
To pull this off, Obama will have to pursue what I call the “blue ribbon” damage-control package: He needs to launch investigations, manage hearings, deny this, admit that, identify and punish bad actors, scapegoat, establish corrective guidelines, make apologies, exploit exculpatory data, attack his attackers, and — critically — wait until the storm passes.
Will it work? A lot depends on things we don’t know yet, but I suspect this approach will work well enough. The dominant media and popular culture have an enormous psychic investment in this president and, when exculpatory or distancing data surface, they will be merchandized in a manner that showcases the sunlight between Obama and bad deeds, a luxury Bush never enjoyed (but that Reagan did a little). Obama will still suffer somewhat from these scandals, but there’s a reason this game is called “damage control” and not “damage elimination.”
Eric Dezenhall is the CEO of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm, and the author of books including the historical novel “The Devil Himself.”