Week In News: A Rough Week For The White House

With the White House embroiled in three concurrent scandals this week, Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden speaks with James Fallows, national correspondent with The Atlantic, about the way forward for the president and for Congress, with recent history as their guide.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, unpaid interns fight for their rights and the writer of "Livin' La Vida Loca" battles lymphoma. First, though, a prescient voice on this program from way back in January looking ahead to the next four years for President Obama.

JAMES FALLOWS: The big constant is how many more scandals seem to crop up in a two-term president's second term.

LYDEN: Well, James Fallows, you sure hit the nail on the head with that one.

FALLOWS: Well, you know, come to me for your oracular predictions.

LYDEN: Thank you. I'll take you up on that actually.

James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays. Jim, you're out of town for a little bit, but we are knee-deep in scandals. The IRS giving extra scrutiny to conservative groups, the Benghazi investigation, the Justice Department seizing Associated Press phone records. Tell us about how this is a second-term phenomenon.

FALLOWS: I think there are two things that are familiar about what we're seeing right now. One is, as I mentioned fortunately a few months earlier, often after a successful re-election battle, a lot of things sort of either come loose or go wrong in the administration. We've seen this for a long time. The other is the familiar Washington press and political framework of the scandal.

And we see the kind of press coverage that kicks in, the kind of investigations that kick in, the kind of stories about how the White House is or is not bearing up under this kind of pressure. And so that is where we are on these three otherwise unrelated phenomena.

LYDEN: Hum. Now, how likely do you think these are to persist and overwhelm President Obama's second-term agenda?

FALLOWS: Certainly in terms of persistence, I think what has evolved in the generation-plus since the Watergate hearings in the mid-1970s is sort of an industry of scandal investigation. The press has its ways of looking forwards to advance a story day-by-day. And certainly when the opposing party has its hands on the investigative machinery in Congress, as the Republicans in the House do, you can have hearings to say who knew what when. And with these three different potential fronts of the Obama administration, we're likely to see a lot of that.

LYDEN: And we don't know yet whether or not crimes have been committed. You were thinking of Watergate.

FALLOWS: Yes. And I think that it's worth establishing that three things which are collectively the Obama scandals right now, these are entirely different things in their potential gravity and who is involved. And so far, no apparent connection to the president himself, which has been an important element in some previous genuine scandals.

LYDEN: You know, it's interesting, Jim, a lot of people glued to the TV these days - has the television era really heightened the potency of the presidential scandal? Is it sort of made for TV?

FALLOWS: It certainly has changed the dynamic. And through the whole course of American history, there always have been scandals. There have been political intrigues. But I think the modern history really dates to the Watergate hearings where, for a period of months, people around the country and the world were riveted to their screens to see how the news was advanced every single day.

And ever since then, that's been sort of the mental template - and actually operational template too - for members of the press, for prosecutors and for members of the opposition party to whoever is in office at the time, to find ways to have the real-time reality show drama of high-stakes hearings where you have witnesses under pressure, senators and representatives grandstanding in various ways. So I think that the Obama administration is hoping these will be minimized, and his critics are hoping to make the most of them.

LYDEN: There has been a lot made this week of how the White House has responded. What's your take?

FALLOWS: I would imagine that right now, the Obama White House is studying very carefully the playbook of the Clinton administration in President Clinton's second term when the Monica Lewinsky genuine scandal was threatening to overwhelm him and even led to an impeachment trial. And what Bill Clinton tried to do then was day by day by day saying, there's all this political friction, but I care about the business of the country. So I'm doing this on the economy and this in foreign policy and this in technology. And I'm sure that is what President Obama will try to do and convey.

And there was an interesting story in The New York Times today saying that instructions have gone out within the White House staff for people to spend no more than 10 percent of their time on scandals, put generally. So I say good luck on that goal, but I'm sure that's the message the president wants to convey.

LYDEN: James Fallows of The Atlantic, thank you very much for being with us.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Jacki.

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