Forget the Charm, Keep the Offensive: Obama's Aggressive New Strategy

Appointing Susan Rice as a top aide, attacking Darrell Issa, and fighting for judicial nominees show Obama and his allies don't want to make nice.
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Post corrected below.

No more Mr. Nice President. For a brief few weeks this spring, the president was on what was universally, and rather uncreatively, described as a "charm offensive." But a series of high-profile power plays this week show suggest a White House that has either lost faith in the value of reaching out or is simply annoyed at a series of scandal investigations and isn't going to take it anymore. The moves may also reflect a concern that if the president doesn't move to set the tone for his second term, it may end up being defined by Republican-driven scandals. Whatever the case, the Obama Administration has this week dropped the "charm" but is sticking with the "offensive."

The most prominent salvo is the planned appointment of Susan Rice as national security adviser. The current ambassador to the U.N. will replace Tom Donilon, who is retiring. The NSA is a big, important job, and the president has shown he greatly values Rice as an adviser, so the appointment isn't a huge surprise. But there's another reason Rice is being slotted for the post: It's not subject to Senate confirmation.

Republicans in Congress despise Rice because of a television appearance shortly after the Benghazi attacks, in which she suggested that the video The Innocence of Muslims, rather than organized terrorism, explained the violence that claimed three lives. Obama had reportedly been considering Rice as a replacement for outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but the controversy effectively ended any chance she could be confirmed, so John Kerry went to Foggy Bottom instead. The NSA gig is a consolation prize for Rice, but it's also a huge thumb in the eye of Senate Republicans: Their adversary gets a big promotion and there's nothing they can do about it. The appointment is even more of a provocation because it comes as the GOP is still trying to make political hay out of Benghazi.

Meanwhile, a top Obama ally is taking the fight directly to Rep. Darrell Issa, who, as chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is the chief inquisitor on the IRS scandal. David Plouffe, a former White House senior adviser and the president's 2008 campaign manager, tweeted this Tuesday:

Plouffe is referring to old allegations about Issa, a California Republican. As a young man, he was indicted for stealing a car and accused by an Army comrade of stealing another; in another case, when a factory Issa owned burned down, his insurance company found evidence that the fire might have been arson, and attempted to refuse to pay out Issa's claims. The parties eventually settled for a small sum. The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza laid the claims out in detail two years ago.

Plouffe's tweet raised tempers. Glenn Thrush reports, "His decision to trash Issa in such a personal way stunned Plouffe admirers who privately fret about poking such an ambitious and unpredictable adversary in the eye, fearing it will only reinforce the California Republican's determination to prove that the orders to scrutinize conservative groups came from high-ranking administration officials." According to Thrush, Plouffe's tweet reflects frustration with Issa in the White House, but was not cleared with anyone there.

Going after Issa like that suggests a political calculation that the worst of the scandal is over, and that Issa has overreached. The congressman is a dogged, combative adversary. But he also looks to be in a weaker position than he was just a week ago. Despite much investigation, there's no evidence so far that the IRS scandal touches Obama. Meanwhile, the press is starting to question Issa's methods and point to holes in his allegations -- which he only exacerbated with ad hominem attacks on White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Whatever the result, it's an act of political war.

And finally, there are Obama's three nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court, setting up a showdown on three fronts: the judiciary, foremost, but also the fate of the Obama agenda and of Senate procedure. His strategy of a triple nomination is described as setting a trap for Senate Republicans. The D.C. Circuit Court is often described as the nation's second most important court, because it hears so many key administrative law questions -- including, perhaps, cases that could decide the fate of some of Obama's major legislative achievements. For obvious reasons, the GOP doesn't want to see the president fill those seats with allies. Obama is betting they won't have the courage to try to tear each nominee down individually and block their confirmation, as they did with previous appointee Caitlin Halligan, if they're nominated en masse. And if they do, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to end filibusters on judicial nominees -- the so-called "nuclear option."

Understandably, Senate Republicans aren't happy. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has described Obama's strategy as "court-packing," a peculiar way to describe filling existing vacancies, but one that captures his frustration. Some Republicans have discussed trying to move seats from the D.C. Circuit to other circuits, which would preserve the current parity between Democratic and Republican appointees on the court.*

While the nominations have a clear long-term strategy, they also fit nicely with Obama's provocation campaign. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, told NPR Tuesday night that court move wasn't really even about the court: "You know, what this is, it's an effort for the president to direct attention away from Benghazi and IRS and AP reporters being harassed by the Justice Department."

And as the Obama Adminstration goes bare-knuckles on Rice, Issa, and the judicial nominations, it also seems to be pulling back on the conciliatory gestures. The Hill reported last week that Republicans who supped with Obama in March are feeling jilted. They were delighted to get some face time with him, but say there's no been no attempt to turn that experience into a real dialogue or political process since then. Given the lack of follow-through, it's worth wondering how seriously the White House ever took the "charm offensive." Even at the time, Carney rather half-heartedly described the meals as proof the president was "willing to try anything." And the political scientists and wonks whose data-driven approach seems closest to the White House's cold-eyed realism were skeptical (at best) that a few dinners could break a political deadlock they see as based on much larger structural problems.

Being willing to try to anything, though, could be politically savvy. After all, Obama had nothing to lose from trying. And once the efforts failed, it would give him political cover to come out swinging. Whatever the strategic planning that led him here, the pugilistic president is back.


* Correction: This post originally stated that Republican appointees were a majority of the judges on the D.C. Circuit. We regret the error.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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