White House senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer never stopped smiling at the end of his CBS News interview Sunday, even when the host, Bob Schieffer, suggested that he was suffering in the spotlight. “I know this is not an easy job,” Schieffer told his guest. “I mean, do you kind of feel like someone who drew the black bean here? You’re the one who has to go out and try to explain?”
“Oh no,” responded the cheerful Pfeiffer, who appeared on five network news shows Sunday to spin back the trifecta of scandal storylines—IRS, Benghazi, Associated Press subpoena—that threatened last week to engulf the White House. “It’s a privilege to be here with you, Bob.”
If his words seemed sincere, there was probably good reason. More combative than charming, Pfeiffer, 37, has spent the last six years working behind the scenes to protect and promote Barack Obama in the press. Now the protégé turned senior advisor is running the White House storytelling and spin operation—and getting a new turn in the spotlight—having been promoted early this year from his role as communications director to senior advisor in charge of message. He follows in the footsteps of Obama’s two closest aides and strategists, David Axelrod and David Plouffe, who directed the Obama brand through two presidential campaigns and the first term in office.
In the tradition of his predecessors, Pfeiffer swatted away at the array of scandals on all five of the Sunday shows in the most Washingtonian of ways—dismissing the notion that they were even scandals at all or attributing the wrongdoing far afield of the White House. “What would be an actual real scandal in Washington would be if the president had been involved or had interfered in an IRS investigation,” he told Schieffer on “Face the Nation.”
“I think we’ve seen this playbook from the Republicans before,” he said on NBC’s Meet The Press. “What they want to do in they are lacking of positive agenda is try to drag Washington into a swamp of partisan fishing expeditions, trumped up hearings and false allegations, we`re not going to let that happen. The President has got business to do for the American people.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Pfeiffer lashed out at congressional Republicans questioning Obama’s actions and whereabouts on the night of the Benghazi consulate attack. “The assertions from Republicans here that somehow the president allowed this to happen and didn’t take action is offensive,” he said. “There’s no evidence to support it.”
For the last several months, Pfeiffer has been operating from an office just feet from the Oval Office, far from his first-term perch, which offered easier access to the press corps than the President. Former Obama aide Tommy Vietor said Pfeiffer’s role in the White House—like Axelrod and Plouffe before—is to serve as a “gut check” for staff. “I can’t tell you how important it is to have someone like that who you can go to at any time on any subject for a final decision or judgment call,” he told TIME. “It’s rare.”
Like his predecessors, Pfeiffer brings to bear a close relationship with the president and in-the-room credibility that sets him apart from other public faces in the administration. Press Secretary Jay Carney found himself under fire this week when White House emails revealed that the administration was more involved in editing the Benghazi talking points than he let on in November. Senior administration officials explained that Carney had not reviewed the full emails about the revisions before addressing them from the podium. Asked about the discrepancy on ABC’s “This Week,” Pfeiffer pivoted to dismissing Republican allegations of political tampering in the wake of the attack and called on the GOP to apologize to UN Ambassador Susan Rice for criticism that now appears misguided.
A former spokesman for several Democratic Senators, including Evan Bayh, Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle, Pfeiffer was recruited to the Obama team as traveling press secretary in 2007 by Obama confidant Pete Rouse. Before the 2008 Democratic National Convention he moved to the Chicago headquarters as communications director for the campaign, a position he also held for Obama’s transition office. He entered the White House as a front-line communications strategist. In November of 2009, Pfeiffer was named Obama’s third communications director, charged with bringing order to a confused messaging operation. (He declined to comment for this story.)
On the Sunday shows, Pfeiffer put another face to the arguments that the White House has been making in public and private for a week. Over and again, he dismissed the lingering questions over Benghazi as base politics by Republicans. He expressed outrage over the mishandling of IRS applications, but said President Obama was not a cause of the problems, but rather the man determined to find a solution. “Everyone needs to take a deep breath and we should work out and resolve the problem, not try to score political points,” he said at one point, one of many variations of the same theme.
When Obama picked Chief of Staff Denis McDonough early this year, one concern was that the national security aide had little experience handling political messaging. Pfeiffer’s elevation helped solve that problem, advisors believed. Schieffer, however, still spoke to Pfeiffer like a deputy. “I mean this as no disrespect to you, why are you here today,” the CBS host asked. “Why isn’t the White House chief of staff here to tell us what happened?”
Pfeiffer didn’t take the bait, choosing instead to deliver the message he had come to deliver. “What’s important here is that when problems happen, is that the president takes responsibility for them and tries to fix them,” he said.
With reporting by Michael Scherer/Washington