With just weeks to go before the presidential election, the White House is in full damage control, trying to blunt Republican attacks on its handling of the 9/11 attacks in Libya.
According to the Republicans and presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the killings in Benghazi represent a major failure in President Obama’s foreign policy.
As with any election issue, the deeper you dig into the incident the harder it is to assign blame for the tragedy. For Democrats and Republicans, it’s a competition for who can come up with the best sound bite that sticks with voters.
For now, the Republicans are winning the game, putting Democrats on the defensive.
On Thursday, the president appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to answer repeated questions about changing stories about what happened in Benghazi and how the White House and the State Department seem to be at odds.
“If four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal,” Obama told Stewart. “We’re going to fix it, all of it. And what happens, during the course of a presidency, is that the government is a big operation and at any given time something screws up. And you make sure that you find out what’s broken, and you fix it.”
The killings of four Americans in Benghazi, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, became political fodder
just hours after the tragic news was made public. In a press conference, Romney issued a strongly worded criticism of the administration’s handling, insisting that the president had sent mixed messages by failing to disavow a statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which was besieged by protesters at the time. Much of the media deemed Romney’s statements a gaffe.
Meanwhile, the White House’s explanation of the cause of the attack has continued to shift. Initially, the administration described the attacks as spontaneous and fueled by a controversial YouTube video. It later emerged that the attack was coordinated, which White House Press Secretary Jay Carney—who initially had cast them as unpremeditated—indicated during a Sept. 19 press conference.
This week, the Republicans and Romney leveled some big allegations against the Obama administration. Conservative super-PAC American Crossroads on Thursday launched a new Web video
accusing Obama and his administration of misleading the public during Tuesday night's debate over the cause of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission.
The video’s theme focuses on how time and time again, the administration said the attack was a response to an anti-Muslim video. In a statement, American Crossroads said:
“The President clearly misled the American people with this claim, because if Obama’s Rose Garden speech was indeed the White House position, it did not inform any subsequent statement by the White House press office—and was even directly contradicted by his own spokesman several days later.”
Conservative Washington Post
columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote
, “It appears that the Obama administration didn’t take 9-11 all that seriously, and when tragedy hit, it went into spin mode. Now the president is caught in a tangle of contradictions. Not even Candy Crowley can get him out,” referring to Tuesday’s presidential debate, when moderator Crowley confirmed that Obama had used the term “act of terror” in a speech following the attack.
The issue is likely to come to a head on Monday during the final debate between Romney and Obama, as foreign policy issues take center stage.
Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter and editor. He heads up the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. Read his blog or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.