When White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told his colleagues last week to spend no more than 10 percent of their time responding to scandals, he didn’t know a tornado would devastate entire stretches of Oklahoma. He knew something like it would happen though. A chief of staff knows that White House plans are always being upset, so he reminds his staff: Don’t get too distracted, bigger distractions are always on the horizon.
The destruction in Oklahoma brings perspective to the debate about what a president should do and when. For the last several weeks, the president’s critics have been trying to get him to react to crises both real and imagined. With the Oklahoma disaster, the answer is obvious about what a president and his staff should do: all hands on deck. But how do you focus a White House when there is no clarifying event? That’s what Denis McDonough was trying to do.
All presidencies try to minimize the distractions. When George W. Bush came into office, his aides talked about how he would be an “A4 president,” meaning that is how deep you would have to page through the newspaper to read about him. He wouldn’t feel compelled to participate in every story that news editors decided was worthy of the front page. His administration would stay focused on the important things.
Every administration has an abstract hierarchy of priorities it tries to follow. In a world of limited resources, limited presidential time and inevitable distractions, staff follow this general pecking order: emergencies, duty, vision, press demands and partisan criticisms. Forces from each of these groups will try to change this order, but a successful White House keeps its eye on the prize.
This is all fine and good, but as the Bush administration learned, and every administration learns, it’s hard to sustain. The press and partisan critics can make those lower priorities inch up, especially if a White House is inattentive or unprepared.
Right now there is a debate over whether the Obama White House has its priorities straight. Critics say items the president should be treating as part of his duty or as an emergency, like the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, are being blown off as a lesser-order nuisance. The president called the Benghazi talking points a “sideshow.” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said much of the recent controversy — from questions about the response to the Benghazi attack to the IRS targeting of conservative groups — was the result of a Republican witch hunt.
The president’s critics see these responses as a part of a cover-up, but there is a difference between priorities and cover-ups. For example, on the issue of Benghazi, those who argued that evidence of a White House cover-up could be found in the talking points prepared last September after the attack lost a lot of ground last week when the emails related to the talking points were made public. But those same critics were right to be offended by the president’s claim that the questions about the talking points were not a priority. They weren’t a “sideshow,” as Obama claimed. Those talking points constituted the administration’s first complete public response to the death of four citizens who were carrying out the president’s policy.