Over the weekend, President Obama blasted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other Republicans over their treacherous attempts to derail the Iran nuclear deal, singling McCain out over his apparent willingness to trust the Iranian supreme leader over his Vietnam brother and American Secretary of State John Kerry, whom McCain called “delusional.” At a press conference to cap the Summit of the Americas, the president told reporters that this “needs to stop.”
McCain responded to the president’s defense of Kerry and the still-incomplete nuclear deal with a generous-sized box of fine American whine:
So Pres Obama goes to #Panama, meets with Castro and attacks me – I'm sure Raúl is pleased
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) April 12, 2015
He later added, “Whatever. Why don’t you just make Raul Castro your boyfriend? Gah. Let’s go, Becky.”
At Monday’s White House daily briefing, NBC News White House Correspondent Chris Jansing asked Press Secretary Josh Earnest for a reaction to McCain’s reaction, but before Earnest moved on to the boilerplate portion of the program, he made a point of characterizing the president’s reaction to McCain:
Chris Jansing: The President sounded somewhat frustrated at the Panamanian press conference about comments made by McCain…
Josh Earnest: Frustrated might be putting it mildly.
To the untrained ear, this sounds like an innocuous, off-the-cuff wisecrack, but Earnest volunteering a remark like that is his equivalent of a Rick James-style slap upside the head. This press secretary (to a greater degree even than his predecessors) reflexively and strategically avoids fanning conflict between the president and his opponents, and normally passes on even juicy opportunities to do so. This is longstanding practice in the Obama White House, where the general rule is to let the president pick the fights he wants to pick, and stay out of the way.
On the rare occasion that a press secretary does “take the bait,” you can bet that they’ve already worked on and approved the messaging, and are certain there’s political gain to be had in engaging. In this case, there wasn’t even any bait offered, Earnest just put it out there. As high as the stakes are in the P5+1 talks, the White House has seen the Republican opposition to the deal, and raised the political stakes even higher. Their public diplomacy messaging around the deal has been cautious, but the Obama administration’s aggressive response to the likes of John McCain and Tom Cotton demonstrates at least a healthy measure of confidence in the outcome.
McCain’s reaction, meanwhile, carries the added bonus of giving the Obama administration yet another scapegoat should the final deal fall apart, while also allowing the administration to continue turning a blind eye to the many Democrats who have joined with Republicans to imperil it.