Morning Joe   |  May 23, 2013

How White House is showing 'sheer incompetence' with messaging

President Obama is expected to deliver a major speech on his counterterrorism policies on Thursday, discussing drone strikes and Guantanamo Bay. Time's Rick Stengel and Fortune's Andy Serwer join a conversation on the president's drone policy, the hearings on the IRS,

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> welcome back to " morning joe ." john heilemann is still with us. and joining us is "time" managing editor rick stengel. incredible photos in that issue. the managing editor of "fortune" magazine is andy serwer. we will get to him in a moment.

>>> joe , we need to get to the top headlines of the day. which is the more damaging scandal for the president? yesterday today we set the scene about revelations with drone strikes.

>> no doubt about it. you have a lot of people asking that question. what is going to be tough for the white house . well, i don't think it's that simple. the answers aren't that simple.

>> no.

>> obviously, for voters, it's going to be very tough to deal with this irs scandal for some time because the irs does touch so many people out there so they can relate to this sort of abuse. politically that is problematic.

>> that's my worry, yeah.

>> i think the bigger long-term problem for the working white house has to be the breach of trust with a mainstream press corps that has largely been sympathetic to president obama and his administration and his policies. they are now seen as being heavy handed. how many reporters have we heard the past several days from nbc, great reporters who have been doing it for a long time like lisa myers and we heard chuck todd yesterday talking about the -- making journalism criminal affair. they are actually starting to see their sources dry up, afraid that they are going to be connected to this story if they are whistle blowers because the white house has seized phone records of, you know, so many reporters. so i think in the long run that is really going to hurt the white house with the press corps and make operating over the next three years very difficult.

>> let's lay this out methodically. the top story pertains to this in a way.

>>> president obama expected to lay out a broad vision for american foreign policy in a speech later today including a shift in the way the u.s. uses unmanned drone strikes. according to "the new york times," president obama signed new classified guidelines limiting strikes in pakistan, yemen and somalia. places that are not active war zones. the move follows revelations that the u.s. has killed four americans outside the battlefield including a radical muslim cleric anwar al awlaki. he was the only one who was specifically targeted. last month, mcclatchy newspapers said the obama administration has targeted and killed low level pakistani militants many of whom had no parent al qaeda affiliation. joe , it's interesting. as we follow the drone angle over the past few years, the criticism or just reaction has been how aggressive this president is compared to the last administration in foreign policy issues.

>> no doubt about it. this president has been much more aggressive in drone war fare than the previous administrations. that's caused a lot of problems with civil libertarians and especially when americans start being killed. rick stengel, "time" magazine looked into this a month or two ago and it was your cover story . what should we make of the president's announcement later on today he is going, i think, by pressure, because of pressure, be forced to change his drone policy?

>> joe , one of the things we discovered and i think we have all seen that the drone policy in some ways is the face of the united states abroad in pakistan and afghanistan and many other areas. as far as the united states brand, i think it was not something they thought was something that was great in terms of representing the u.s. obviously, there are internal guidelines and regulations about it but i think from a pr perspective, i think, the idea of scaling back so this is not the face of the u.s. abroad is something that people probably think is a good idea.

>> okay. we are going to be following the president's words on this later today . let's turn to the irs . the investigation into the targeting of conservative groups by the irs ran into an obstacle on capitol hill when lois lerner the woman at the center of the scandal, she declined to testify.

>> i have not done anything wrong. i have not broken any laws. i have not violated any irs rules or regulations, and i have not provided false information to this or any other congressional committee . while i would very much like to answer the committee's questions today, i've been advised by my counsel to assert my constitutional right not to testify or answer questions related to the subject matter of this hearing.

>> lerner statement and refusal to provide details enraged many house committee members. she quickly dismissed herself from the hearing drawing criticism from congressman trey gowdy.

>> she just waived her right to the privilege. you don't get to tell your side of the story and not be subjected to cross-examination. that's not the way it works. she waived her right to the fifth amendment privilege by issuing an opening statement . she ought to stand here and answer our questions.

>> chairman of the house oversight committee daryl issa is exploring his options to bring lerner back to compel and testify.

>> i got to tell you the agencies i worked with they are the most responsive. you could sit down and talk to them and say i think you're pushing my constituent too hard on this issue. they are very responsive but they have always been demonized for a lot of different reasons. i always reminded people that the irs agents aren't the ones that write the tax code . it's the members of congress who write the tax code . so there are. we need to say there are a lot of great professionals that work for the internal revenue service across america who have to be just as horrified by what was going on in this cincinnati office as anyone. you just wonder how did this office get so out of control and how do they have leaders like this lady who has misled the american people from the very beginning?

>> yeah. what an unsympathetic position. you know, we just saw her pleading the fifth. this is something mafia chieftans do in front of congress and not somebody from the irs . everyone wants to know the real story and want her to come clean. how bad could it be? i'm sorry. you need to tell what is going on here and to do otherwise is just ridiculous and the irs is just going to continue to be a pinata and, obviously, it's not just right wing groups that are upset with this, but every american citizen should be upset with this.

>> fwhat is frustrating, joe , everyone concedes here something went wrong, yet very little information as to where and how it began. that shouldn't be that hard to find, should it?

>> no doubt about it. i will say the white house communication efforts, john heilemann, have been abhorrent the past several weeks. ben ghazi they don't get the story right and jay carney is caught misleading the american people and continues to mislead the american people and lie to the press corps about all of the revisions. i like jay and he's a really good friend of mine. i'm not talking about his morals and let other people what you should antishouldnd shouldn't do. when you have to revise stories day in and day out, day in, day out, you start asking who is in charge of the communication shop? who is in charge at the white house and why is the president allowing this to go on? this irs story is another great example of just sheer incompetence of the white house to get their story out in a clean, effective way and these are the days that you go, where have you gone? i'm sorry. what was the great clinton white house press secretary ?

>> mike mccurry .

>> where are you, mike? mccurry would tell them, hey, i can't tell you right now. i don't have all of the answers but i'm going to come back and tell you later. this white house seems to just be bumbling through one problem after another and not handling it very well.

>> john heilemann, i would say this is the one area. there is a lot we can't claim to know because they won't tell us. but we do know a little bit about pr and how to get a message out and it is confusing to watch this sort of just snowball, especially the irs one which is so damming. it's just bad. whether anybody did anything absolutely on purpose, which i guess we can debate and find out about in the future, you know when you hear that this has happened and you're inside the white house or anywhere near it, you know this is going to be politically terrible and it needs to be handled on a communications level.

>> look. i don't really like the notion trying to priorize these issues. they are all important issues. the issue with the a.p. is important.

>> just talking about communications.

>> yes, yes. but i think they are connected. because in the long run, over the course of the next three afteryears, the white house has to operate with a really important constituency which is the press corps. at this moment the combination of what seems to be the white house 's efforts to undermine the press on the a.p. front and rosen front, in combination with the mishandling of chronologies and story lines on this irs issue are creating an overwhelming sense of hostility.

>> what i'm talking about.

>> one is a pr problem and another a problem they seemed to have kind of wage war on sources and the press but in both cases, they create a situation where it's going to be very hard for the white house to continue to operate effectively if it's at odds of the national press corps. you can't operate in that environment.

>> we are talking on the same level here. let's get the latest on the tornado .

>>> the damage estimate from the tornado in oklahoma tops $2 billion with 13,000 homes damaged or destroyed. rick, they have amazing photos in your issue entitled "16 minutes." which has an caption on the cover destruction of the tornado . what do you see?

>> a beautiful picture of horses that died but the theme, the cover is this idea that national weather service station in oklahoma basically, you had from the moment they knew a tornado was going to touch down in that area, basically, you had 16 minutes to find some kind of shelter. one of the things we looked at is just how difficult it is to predict when a tornado is going to come and what it's going to do. tornadoes by their very nature are capricious and unpredictable. even though the national weather service has increased by 30 times the computer power they have in that station in oklahoma it's still not enough. still gives them only a few extra minutes rather than something like even half an hour would be radically different. we have people saying not only the national weather service but computer scientists saying it has to increase by a hundred times the amount of computing power it has in order to get half an hour's notice. at the same time, we looked at the fact that even though these things are not predictive, the regulations in moore, oklahoma , don't require people to have basements, don't require them to have safe houses. only the schools and buildings built after 1999 have any kind of regulation that requires that kind of thing. so there are a lot of issues that actually could be fixed and repaired.

>> looking inside the issue, the photographs, the other ones who have our unbelievable -- i want to show you some photographs some some of our crew. maybe future "time" magazine photographers. they came down with us through the night and this is first light after the night after the tornado struck and there are pictures really, some what are iconic of the moments that we saw down there. this tree that we reported from with just, you know, huge pieces of siding from homes wrapped around it and, again, some of the things we saw as you pointed out, how indiscriminate. look at the toys on the shelf. a tornado can be while it rips apart homes and literally forces them to fly into the air like twisted tiny pieces of degree ev -- debris that are huge and bill karins showing that ten-ton tank.

>> it was lifted out of the air and deposited someplace else like a couple of blocks away from a bowling alley where the pins are all disturbed in the lanes.

>> unbelievable!

>> it's just, you know, it's kind of astonishing thing.

>> yeah. it does really being there gives you a sense of just how precious life is and how quickly things can change. so the issue of "time" magazine again this week is "16 minutes." that's how much time you have to save your life. amazing how many lives were saved.

>> yes.

>> it is.