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Amid damage control efforts, White House listens to outside advice

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service at the Capitol in Washington May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service at the Capitol in Washington May 15, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin

By Roberta Rampton and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior White House officials responsible for navigating the administration through a trio of scandals met on Thursday with outside Democratic strategists for advice on how to get past the controversies and back on track advancing the president's agenda.

The White House is trying to regain the upper hand after being knocked on the defensive over its response to deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, the seizure of journalists' phone records in a Justice Department leak investigation, and the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Now, President Barack Obama's closest advisers want to find a way to return attention to his top priorities, such as creating more jobs and reforming immigration laws, while continuing to show they are trying to get to the bottom of the controversies.

"I think what they've done in the last two days is a great demonstration that they're prepared to own this stuff and deal with it," said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist invited to the Thursday meeting.

"There's always going to be bumps in the road. That's just the nature of it. I think they're going to be fine, as long as they stick to the big issues," Devine told Reuters.

About a dozen outside strategists huddled with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and Dan Pfeiffer, communications director Jen Palmieri and press secretary Jay Carney.

Pfeiffer confirmed the meeting but declined to provide details.

The session was one of a handful of regularly scheduled meetings between Obama aides and outside advisers. It was scheduled after the trio of crises were in full swing - but participants said it would be incorrect to call it a crisis summit.

Obama is ending the week by traveling to Baltimore on Friday to talk about his proposals to boost early-childhood education, create manufacturing jobs and fix crumbling infrastructure.

"I can't think of any better time" for such a trip, said Devine, who said polls and focus groups consistently show that voters want elected leaders to focus on the economy rather than "peripheral issues."

DAMAGE-CONTROL MODE

At the beginning of the week the White House struggled to counter criticism about the scandals. By midweek, that had changed, with damage control in full swing.

On Wednesday Obama announced that the acting head of the IRS had been asked to resign and on Thursday announced a successor, delivering the swift action that critics had called for after news of the extra scrutiny first came out.

While defending his Attorney General Eric Holder and Justice Department investigations into leaks about national security issues, Obama also pushed for Congress to revive proposals that would help reporters protect their sources.

The White House released 100 pages of emails to demonstrate transparency on its deliberations over how to explain the September 11, 2012, attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Mike McCurry, a longtime press secretary to former President Bill Clinton who attended Thursday's meeting, said criticism that the White House had been slow to respond to the controversies was unfair.

"They had to be patient, and they had to get it right," he said.

McCurry said White House officials made clear at the meeting that they were determined to respond effectively to the issues dominating the news this week without losing sight of the president's other priorities, including strengthening the economy.

"Most of the discussion was, how can you effectively do that," he said.

Outside strategists said it might be worthwhile for the White House to reorganize its staff to have a point person or two for the scandals, particularly as Congress delves deeper into its IRS investigations. But they said they had no indication that might happen.

Reorganizing White House staff could leave spokesman Jay Carney freer to talk about Obama's agenda in daily briefings rather than being bogged down in daily interrogations about the details of congressional probes, they said.

(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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