Column: The White House's new tranquilizer
WASHINGTON — President Obama has described his foreign-policy doctrine as an attempt to hit singles, doubles and the occasional home run. But at this stage of the game, it looks as though he has popped out, grounded into a double play and been hit by a pitch.
His attorney general, Eric Holder, said Sunday that the threat of undetectable explosives from Syria is “more frightening than anything” he has experienced in office. And The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article Monday reporting that “the breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s” and that “U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous.”
The Journal’s catalog of woes — civil wars in Iraq and Syria, hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan, tension with Russia over Ukraine, floundering nuclear negotiations with Iran and renewed Chinese expansionism — didn’t include the current crisis on the United States’ Southern border.
Could things get any worse? Well, maybe if the president’s chief spokesman claimed that Obama was bringing “tranquility” to the globe — which is what White House press secretary Josh Earnest did at his daily briefing Monday afternoon.
Fox News’ Ed Henry, citing the Journal report, asked for a reaction to “the notion that the president is a bystander in all these crises.”
Earnest, mentioning the disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons, Secretary of State John Kerry’s mediation of Afghanistan’s electoral dispute and progress in recent negotiations with China, argued that “there have been a number of situations in which you’ve seen this administration intervene in a meaningful way that has ... substantially improved the — you know, the tranquility of the — of the global community.”
Tranquility? Where, in Iceland?
“Did you really believe that this president’s foreign policy has contributed to what you called the ‘tranquility of the global community’?” ABC News’ Jonathan Karl asked.
Earnest backtracked a bit, declining to repeat his tranquility claim. When Karl mentioned the Journal article again, Earnest tried to discredit it by saying, “They’re not exactly an impartial source.” But the article was the product of the Journal’s news section, not its right-wing editorial page.Just weeks into his new job, Earnest is a well-liked figure among reporters, who consider him a vast improvement over Jay Carney and what they perceived as his sneering manner. But Earnest had the bad luck of getting the job as the public face of the White House just as events were combining to bring Obama to a new low in public esteem.
The day after Earnest was named Carney’s successor, Obama made his controversial announcement about the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner exchange with the Taliban. Soon after, Islamist militants seized control of a large part of Iraq. And, since Earnest’s first briefing as press secretary, the crisis along the U.S.-Mexican border has exploded, tensions have flared in Ukraine and Israel moved close to war. Improvements in domestic affairs — employment and health care — have provided little relief.
Earnest’s situation is similar to that of Scott McClellan, who took over the White House podium from Ari Fleischer in May 2003, just before the Iraq War went south and the Valerie Plame scandal broke. McClellan was better liked than Fleischer, but the goodwill didn’t get him far.
Earnest, after a brief pleasantry about the weather, began his briefing Monday by reading, with barely a glance up, a long statement about “the president’s year of action.” He fielded questions in a similar manner, answering most reporters with a soft “mmm-hmm” and then reading from his prepared answers, with reference to things “we have said” in the past.
Whatever “we have said” in the past, it was not helping in the present to deflect the grim developments referenced in the questions. When the Associated Press’ Julie Pace noted that there hasn’t been “much of a breakthrough” in nuclear talks with Iran in advance of Sunday’s deadline, Earnest insisted that there has been “important progress” and that Iran has been talking “in a serious manner.”
This appeared to contradict an administration official at the talks who had called Iran’s position “unworkable and inadequate,” leading CBS News’ Major Garrett to ask, “How can something be serious if it’s unworkable and inadequate?” There was no particularly good answer to that question.
But if there were few good answers to be given, Earnest at least answered good-naturedly, enduring with patience an hour of interrogation about Israeli-Palestinian violence, Bergdahl and other unwelcome topics. You might even say he was tranquil.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.