WASHINGTON — Ari Fleischer knew from the moment reporters started tweeting out the Politico story that the Obama White House had lost the message war Friday.
At around the time many reporters were preparing to go to the daily briefing with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, Politico reported that the White House had held a special background briefing on Benghazi for a select group of reporters just a few minutes earlier. Fleischer, onetime press secretary for George W. Bush and an Obama White House critic, told BuzzFeed that Obama’s communications shop should have realized that such a decision would provoke the wrath of the reporters who weren’t invited — thus drawing more attention to the Benghazi controversy the administration is trying to downplay.
“The [daily televised] briefing is a red-hot environment, and there is something to be said for calming the environment and doing it in a different session,” he said. “But the timing is important. The timing of doing it right before the briefing is the equivalent of raising a red cape in front of a bunch of bulls.”
The White House insisted it didn’t do anything out of the ordinary with the background briefing, a commonplace occurrence Fleischer said he made use of often when he was press secretary. On Twitter, Fleischer joined the throngs of Republicans attacking the White House Friday. He’s not a neutral observer when it comes to Obama administration policy. But anyone who remembers the Bush years will attest that Fleischer knows a thing or two about press strategy. And strategically, he said, Obama’s team could have done a much better job handling the news of the day. Holding the background briefing before the on-the-record briefing was a mistake, he said.
“It’s one thing if you hold the [daily] briefing, it doesn’t go well, and you bring reporters together for a background briefing late in the evening or later that afternoon to work twice as hard,” he said. “But to do this right before the briefing is throwing gasoline on a fire.”
“I don’t see what it accomplishes unless they were able to somehow convince reporters that the critics are wrong and here’s why, and as a result it leads to a calmer briefing instead of a feeding frenzy,” Fleischer added. “Absent that, it strikes me as terrible press management and in the middle of a growing crisis, the last thing they should do.”
For days, the White House had planned to make Friday’s messaging all about implementing Obama’s health-care law. In two separate briefings (one held Friday morning) with reporters, senior administration officials previewed a speech Obama gave about the health-care law in the White House East Room Friday afternoon. The speech was aimed at kicking off one of the most important tasks Obama has in the second term: convincing healthy young people to sign up for insurance coverage under Obamacare to ensure the program works. Friday’s event was tied to Mother’s Day in the hopes of influencing moms to advise their kids to sign up for the new insurance options provided by the health care law.
But the careful White House preparation for Obama’s speech got lost in the day’s news. A few reporters filed stories about the president’s speech, but the day was dominated by the revelation that the IRS had targeted conservative groups, as well as the many stories about how the administration had edited its talking points in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. For most of the day, the White House refused to provide on-the-record quotes for these stories and repeatedly postponed the scheduled White House press briefing.
Once it finally began, three hours after the briefing was originally supposed to start, Carney was peppered with questions about the IRS. He said there was an investigation underway by the IRS inspector general. On Benghazi, where he faced even more questions than he did on the IRS, Carney ducked and parried, even invoking Mitt Romney at one point. He also had to answer uncomfortable questions about the background briefing he’d held with reporters earlier that day, which Carney noted was standard procedure for White Houses from both parties.
There was one question about health care.