Supporters and critics of President Obama are looking for leadership on many pressing issues from the White House, but many believe they are not getting it.
On Monday, Obama held a Cabinet meeting and spoke about his effort to modernize government databases.
He avoided public remarks on several matters seen as more pressing, such as turmoil in Egypt and the wider Middle East, faltering efforts to reform immigration in the U.S. and the rocky implementation of ObamaCare. Instead the president spoke to a small group of reporters about his efforts to improve databases and make government more efficient.
“We’re working to make huge swaths of your government more transparent and more accountable than ever before,” Obama said at the White House.
Even to the most loyal Obama supporters, the move seemed irrelevant, even odd.
One top Democratic strategist griped on Monday that a White House in need of a second-term win “isn’t using all the tools they have available to them in their toolbox.”
“The president needs to be consistent about what he cares about,” the strategist said. “The only things he should be talking about are things on his priority list and nothing else.”
Republicans said the administration appeared rudderless, while Democrats said Obama needed to be more proactive instead of reactive.
“If I were to guess, I would venture to say that some people would like to see him speak up on these issues a little more than he’s doing,” said a former administration official. “I think some people want to see more, not less, of him.”
Tony Fratto, who served as White House deputy press secretary under former President George W. Bush, defended the Obama administration’s approach in handling the database announcement.
Fratto said any administration bears the responsibility of running the government.
“It’s the world’s biggest operation and things like databases and technology are huge and confounding,” Fratto said.
Still, he acknowledged: “In this environment, it does feel like a non-sequitur with what’s going on in this world.”
The White House on Monday defended the importance of Obama’s announcement on his “vision for smarter government during his second term.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the announcement would get a lot of attention if it were not for the Egyptian army’s ouster of that country’s president.
“But in an ideal world, maybe a less — a world crowded with, you know, news like what’s happened in Egypt or the like — this would get the kind of attention that I think it deserves,” Carney said.
“We’ve seen a lot of positive outcomes already,” he said of the database program. “We don’t expect that you all would be writing about them every day, but they matter.”
The comments on Monday were Obama’s first on U.S. soil since he returned last Tuesday from an eight-day trip to Africa.
He has yet to explain how he wants to shoehorn immigration through the GOP-controlled House. And he has yet to speak directly to the American people about the situation in Egypt.
He has also not addressed the decision last week to delay by one year the implementation of the employer insurance mandate, a key part of the healthcare reform law.
And Republicans claim he’s checked out of some issues altogether, including the decision on how to broker a deal to turn back a doubling of interest rates on student loans.
While Obama campaigned rigorously on the issue last year before his reelection, Republicans say they haven’t heard a peep from him lately.
“There’s no doubt this administration is being mismanaged, but there’s an amazing lack of urgency being shown,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Senate Democrats drove right through the deadline on student loan rates, and we didn’t hear a peep from the president. I guess the issue’s not as important to them when Democrats are the ones standing in the way.”
From a strategy perspective, Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist, said the White House needs to be more aggressive in plugging the holes on stories.
“It seems to me that they’ve got to find a way to put some of these stories away and I don’t think they’ve done that yet,” Mackowiak said. “But my sense is that you aren’t proactive when you don’t have good answers for the public.”
Obama set lofty goals for his second term during his State of the Union address in January, but some of his proposals have been sidetracked by unforeseen events or have fallen flat altogether. He hasn’t achieved a major legislative victory and has been distracted by a string of controversies ranging from the Internal Revenue Service to the Edward Snowden affair.
The president is expected to hit the road in the coming weeks to talk up immigration reform and hold separate events on ways the government can spur economic growth.
Even Republicans acknowledge those two items are pivotal to Obama’s second term.
While the White House currently finds itself in rough, stormy seas right now, “I think the president will benefit from a broadly improving economy,” Fratto said.
“But I think you can make the case that the second term is resting on the House’s ability to pass an immigration reform bill,” he added. “If he can get immigration reform, that’s something he can anchor his ship on.”