It’s a teaser from a longer interview with Chris Christie, but this exchange with CBS This Morning‘s Gayle King will probably be the major takeaway from the segment when it airs. Christie scolded Barack Obama for his comment on CBS’ 60 Minutes last Sunday that “they underestimated” ISIS, meaning the US intelligence community. Interestingly, Christie takes Obama at his word on that point, at least in this exchange, when it has already been made very clear — even on MSNBC — that the intelligence community has been warning the White House and Congress of ISIS since at least the time Obama made his “jayvees” comment to the New Yorker. Even if one buys Obama’s framing of the problem, though, Christie argues that Obama himself is the accountable party and that shifting blame doesn’t demonstrate leadership:
“Well, he used the … he used the word ‘they.’ He used the pronoun ‘they,’ which is what I was talking about. He said ‘They underestimated it.’ It should’ve been ‘We underestimated it.’ That’s all I was talking about. Now he’s gotta proceed the ‘How do we deal with this threat? And how do we deal with it effectively? How do we bring a coalition of people around the world together?’ Cause it’s in everyone’s interest throughout the world, freedom-loving people, to make sure that this doesn’t spread and get more powerful and more dangerous and more deadly.
“But what I was talking about specifically in that answer in Wisconsin was ‘Don’t say they underestimated, Mr. President. We underestimated.’ His administration, he, underestimated. And, he, you know, you need to be accountable for those things. You’re not always directly responsible. But you need, when you’re the leader, to be accountable.”
King tries to pin this back on Christie by suggesting that the governor used the word “they” during the Bridgegate scandal, too, but Christie was prepared for that. “I stood up the day after it all became public,” Christie fired back, “and said, ‘I’m accountable.’ … It happened on my watch, and I’m accountable.” Christie reminded King, “I stood up for an hour and fifty minutes and took questions, and never once have I skirted from my accountability — and that’s all I’m talking about.”
Josh Kraushaar wrote about this same issue on Monday, pointing out that this blameshifting has become a very clear pattern for Obama:
In attempting to downplay the political damage from a slew of second-term controversies, President Obama has counted on the American people having a very short memory span and a healthy suspension of disbelief. The time-tested strategy for Obama: Claim he’s in the dark about his own administration’s activities, blame the mess on subordinates, and hope that with the passage of time, all will be forgotten. Harry Truman, the president isn’t. He’s more likely to pass the buck. …
The elements of the administration’s blame, deny, and wait-it-out communications strategy has been front and center amid all the recent controversies. When the administration badly botched the launch of the health care exchange website, Obama said he was “not informed directly that the website would not be working the way it was supposed to.” This, for his signature achievement in office. Blame was later pinned on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who left the administration in April.
When officials at the Internal Revenue Service improperly targeted conservative outside groups for scrutiny, Obama first feigned outrage, saying he had “no patience for” the misconduct. But months later, as the public’s anger subsided, Obama said there “wasn’t even a smidgen of corruption” at the agency, and the administration has done little to hold anyone accountable since.
After CNN reported that Veterans Affairs Department offices covered up long wait times at several of its facilities, former Obama press secretary Jay Carney said, “We learned about them through the [news] reports.” Long wait times were hardly a secret, with Obama himselfcampaigning on VA reform as a candidate. To his credit, Obama signed legislation reforming the VA and replaced embattled Secretary Eric Shinseki. But the president himself escaped much of the blame, even though he was clearly familiar with the long-standing problems that the agency faced.
The administration’s approach to controversies was best crystallized by former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, who deflected criticism about allegations that talking points on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, were altered for political reasons. “Dude, this was two years ago,” he told Bret Baier of Fox News. The remarks were perceived as flippant, but they underscored the success of the administration’s public-relations strategy. Buy enough time, and inevitably problems tend to go away—especially in today’s attention-deprived environment.
Except that they really don’t. They just crystallize into a widespread perception of incompetence and diffidence, which is exactly why Obama’s polling numbers have cratered over the last year, and especially this summer. “I was ignorant of what was going on in my administration” may be a good way to escape one scandal, but when it’s your go-to card, it just looks like plain ignorance — or worse, apathy. And that perception will be incredibly difficult to undo, not just in the short term but for the rest of Obama’s presidency, even if he does start taking advice from Chris Christie.