POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 18, 2013
BALTIMORE » President Barack Obama, struggling to find his footing after one of his most turbulent weeks in office, will try to push past the moment's political furor with a focus on the few pieces of legislation he believes have a chance in Congress and on executive actions that do not require Republican approval.
The president's aides, wary of what they say are Republican attempts to seize on scandals as a way of thwarting Obama's agenda, have ordered the White House staff not to be distracted by approaching hearings on Capitol Hill. Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, has told those in the West Wing that he expects them to spend no more than 10 percent of their time on the controversies.
In a meeting with Democratic strategists Thursday morning, McDonough outlined a plan to intensify focus on revamping immigration laws, reaching a budget deal, and implementing the health care law. The White House is also preparing a new push to keep student loan rates low when the current ones expire this summer, on the theory that the best way to get past the scandals is to emphasize policy proposals and contrast them with what the administration will portray as political gamesmanship by the Republicans.
"We've got to stay focused," McDonough told the group of strategists, according to Mike McCurry, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton who was at the meeting. "Even if it's not going to break through in the short run, we've got to keep hammering on," McDonough added, according to the account.
Aware that few substantive bills can receive the bipartisan support needed to pass Congress in the current political climate, White House officials are also turning their attention to narrower policies Obama can implement on his own. On Friday, he flew by helicopter to Baltimore, where he announced an accelerated process for federal approval of infrastructure projects.
"Others may get distracted by chasing every fleeting issue that passes by," Obama said to a crowd of 500 at a factory here. "But the middle class will always be my No. 1 focus, period."
Republicans have already criticized Obama's executive actions as big-government overreach, and are likely to use the scandals to further their case, especially as the White House turns to politically thorny areas, like greenhouse-gas emissions.
Even as Obama spent the day in Baltimore, his adversaries in the House grilled the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service and its inspector general, trying to determine whether other officials in the administration knew that conservative groups had been the targets of special scrutiny.
Beyond executive actions, the White House has made a spate of nominations in the last week, after having left many jobs unfilled at the State Department and elsewhere, and continues to lobby to win approval of a nominee to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
Publicly, White House officials say they will continue to push for major bills, like energy legislation, a long-term deficit deal and a bill to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. But the officials acknowledge that only immigration has a strong chance of receiving enough Republican support to pass, with a budget deal having an outside chance.
Obama and his aides have deliberately played a low-profile role in the immigration debate, believing his involvement could stoke Republican opposition and damage the bill's prospects. Congress appeared to make progress on immigration this week, with the Senate starting to mark up a bill and a bipartisan group in the House announcing the outlines of an agreement.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is a central player in negotiating a budget deal, suggested that the scandals could even bring a silver lining. If the president is focused elsewhere, he said, it could soothe partisan furies and boost the prospects for a compromise.
"It's good he's not as excited right now," Baucus said.
Obama's visit to Baltimore underscored the White House's strategy. At Ellicott Dredges, Obama announced a plan to streamline the process for issuing permits for federal public-works projects, the kind of modest measure that does not require legislation.
But his first stop, at an elementary school, brought a reminder that most of his ambitious social initiatives — like a federal-state plan to expand pre-kindergarten and early childhood education, which he promoted — can probably not pass Congress on their own. Aides hope that financing for the education plan might ultimately become part of a broader budget deal.
Thursday's meeting in McDonough's office was the latest in a series of gatherings with Democratic thinkers that he has held since becoming chief of staff in January. The scandals — not just the IRS, but the debate over the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and the Justice Department's seizure of news media phone records as well — quickly became the topic of the day.
"You have to contain the so-called scandal," said Steve Elmendorf, a veteran Democratic strategist who was at the meeting. "But you have to change the subject by accomplishing things."
One of the most consequential but quietest areas of White House deliberation is climate policy. In his State of the Union speech this year, Obama promised to address climate change aggressively, but has done little so far.
Searching for policies that do not require congressional approval, he has proposed to divert about $200 million a year from oil and gas royalties to clean-vehicle technologies. The administration is also moving forward with new rules on appliance efficiency, among other steps.
But scientists say that major progress depends on cleaning up the electric utility sector, which produces roughly 40 percent of the nation's climate-altering gases. The Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to impose emissions limits on new and existing coal-burning power plants, but that project, which would be hugely controversial, is on the shelf for now as the EPA studies the costs and benefits.
Some of the president's allies have urged him to develop a political "circuit breaker" in case the Republican effort to stoke controversies continues for months, said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. But she said there were no plans for Obama to make a big speech to confront controversies that White House officials do not believe will last.
In the last few days, the administration appears to have stopped the bleeding. The release of internal emails on Benghazi largely confirmed the White House's account; the inspector general's report on the IRS did not tie anyone outside the agency to its actions; and the press freedom issues raised by the Associated Press leak investigation are a bigger concern for journalists than the broader public.
"Our circuit breaker is dealing with it aggressively and moving on to other stuff," said Palmieri, a veteran of scandals in the Clinton administration.