Tuesday morning, the White House announced that President Obama would hold a snap press conference at 10:15am EDT. The ambiguous nature of the presser raised expectations that important news was about to break. When the presser was delayed by almost 30 minutes, those expectations seemed confirmed. Instead, the delayed event was a run-of-the-mill presser addressing current news and issues. It was a clear sign that the White House was worried the narrative on several issues was slipping away from Obama.
Obama held fewer press conferences in his first term than any of his recent predecessors. Calling a surprise press conference absent any breaking news is highly unusual. Given recent developments on several fronts, however, it is indicative of a White House on the defense. Critical missteps by the Administration have been exposed over the past two weeks.
The investigation in the Boston Marathon bombing has revealed that the FBI had been warned about Tamerlan Tsarnaev and alleged ties to terrorists back in 2011. The FBI found no evidence, at the time, to support the allegations, yet his mother was placed on the terrorist watch list that same year.
A few months after the FBI closed its investigation, Tamerlan spent 6 months abroad in an area of Russia known to be used by terror groups. He returned to the US less than a year before this month’s attack, yet the FBI never followed-up their investigation.
Soon after his brother and accomplice Dhokhar was taken into custody, a special team of federal agents began interrogating him about assistance the brothers might have received. The suspect was cooperating. While the interrogation was going on, however, a federal judge, with the apparent blessing of Eric Holder, “mirandized” the suspect, reminding him that he didn’t have to cooperate. He has since stopped answering questions.
But at his press conference, Obama upheld the work of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, explaining, “Based on what I’ve seen so far, the FBI performed its duties. Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing.”
Months ago, Barack Obama famously drew a “red line” in Syria, warning the country not to use chemical weapons on its citizens. Last week, SecDef Hagel reported the US had evidence that Syria had used these weapons, presumably setting a US response in motion. The Administration has since back-tracked, arguing it needs additional evidence before responding.
Asked about Syria, however, Obama simply stated that if Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, the consequences would require the Obama administration to “rethink the range of options.” Which means nothing.
While there are other issues where Obama is on the defense, these two developments are particularly damaging. In the case of Boston, the Administration looks incompetent, unable to keep tabs on an individual even after Russia had warned us of possible terrorist ties. In Syria, the Administration looks feckless and weak, unable to back up threats and warnings made to rogue nations.
On his heels in these two areas, Obama responded by going directly to the media, attempting to spin the narrative in his favor. By framing these events in his own terms to the media, Obama’s White House is hoping the media will blunt the growing criticism over his Administration’s missteps.
Obama’s challenge, however, is that he didn’t have a strong story to counter the facts that are emerging. He looked weak, reporting merely that they were reviewing these developments. He outlined no decisive action on any front.
In many ways, Barack Obama’s campaigns and presidency are creatures of the media. Throughout his tenure, he has been omnipresent in both the news and popular media. The media have repaid the attention by strenuously framing every issue in a way that his helpful to Obama. The White House clearly hoped Tuesday’s presser would continue that dance. Some facts, though, are too big to spin away.