WASHINGTON – Blasted by pundits on both ends of the political spectrum for its firing of a USDA worker who made racially tinged remarks, a chastened White House apologized while wooing her with a new job.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday he has apologized to ousted employee Shirley Sherrod and offered her a unique new position at the agency.
Sherrod, in an interview with The Associated Press, said she was considering it.
"They did make an offer," she said in a telephone interview. "I just told him I need to think about it."
Vilsack told reporters that Sherrod accepted his apology. He said, "She was extraordinarily gracious."
The new job offer comes after an embarrassed White House apologized to Sherrod Wednesday for ousting her over her remarks about race to an NAACP banquet in Georgia earlier this year. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the administration did not know all the facts when it acted.
When asked Wednesday if he had spoken with President Barack Obama, Vilsack said simply, "No."
Vilsack insisted that it had been his decision to seek her resignation and said he takes full responsibility.
"This is a good woman," Vilsack said. "She's been put through hell."
Sherrod resigned this week as state director of rural development in Georgia. She said she quit under pressure from the White House.
The extraordinary turn of events came less than 48 hours after a video depicting Sherrod talking about her experience with a white farmer went viral. While Sherrod emerged heroic for the treatment she received, the Obama administration appeared fearful, even panicky in dealing with a racially charged story.
Sherrod, who says her remarks had been selectively edited and taken out of context, told CNN that the White House "harassed" her to resign because the controversy was "going to be on Glenn Beck tonight."
When USDA officials contacted Sherrod saying the White House wanted her to resign, she says she tried to communicate that there was another side to the story.
Her videotaped remarks appeared to indicate she didn't give "the full force of what I could do" to a farmer because he was white. But she says the remarks were actually used to illustrate that people should not be judged based on race. The farmer has defended Sherrod, and credits her with saving his farm. But the administration officials wouldn't listen, she says.
"They were not interested in hearing the truth," Sherrod said of the administration. "No one wanted to hear the truth."
"The last time they asked me to pull over the side of the road and submit my resignation on my Blackberry, and that's what I did," Sherrod told The Associated Press.
Pundits on the left and right said Wednesday that the incident shows all the hallmarks of an administration panicked by free-falling approval numbers and negative coverage from conservative media.
Former GOP Congressman Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC's Morning Joe program, blasted the administration.
"Let me just say, if that scares a White House into firing a woman without due process, then that White House is not strong enough to run this country," he declared Wednesday morning. "And that is pathetic, and it's an indictment on the full-scale panic that has overtaken that place."
The narrative of panic was echoed on the program by commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.
"If this is true, and this did come from the White House," Buchanan said, "it acted out of fear and panic. It threw one of its own to the wolves. It not only didn't retrieve its wounded, it went down and shot its own wounded."
Time magazine senior political analyst Mark Halperin weighed in as well, suggesting the administration's apparent dread of a lambasting on the Glenn Beck program reflects an unhealthy obsession with how the president is portrayed in the conservative media.
"We don't know all the facts about what the White House did on this," Halperin said on the program, "but it's clear to me that the White House's war, particularly against Fox News and the freak-show media culture, but particularly against Fox News, they have lost that war, and they are now weak and vulnerable to it, in a way that is not just unbecoming, but that is panicky."
The White House has denied any involvement in Sherrod's forced resignation, while acknowledging that they approved of Vilsack's decision once they were informed of it.
But Sherrod has indicated she was told the order came from the White House. And a report Wednesday morning by Politico's Ben Smith appears to support that account. Smith says three Democratic sources tell him that Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina praised the White House's initial response to the Sherrod incident at the daily 8:30 a.m. staff meeting on Tuesday. In those remarks, Messina said the White House had reacted quickly to the controversy.
Wrote Smith, "One source, who is unhappy with the administration's handling of the incident, paraphrased Messina's remarks: 'We could have waited all day — we could have had a media circus — but we took decisive action and it’s a good example of how to respond in this atmosphere.'"
Adding to the consternation at the White House, no doubt, are poll numbers that show the president's approval ratings falling to new lows. Some pundits say that may be contributing to the administration's apparent disarray over its messaging.
According to a new Quinnipiac University poll, Obama would lose an election to "an unnamed Republican" — meaning any GOP opponent — by a 39 to 36 percent margin.
The president tallied his worst net approval rating ever in the poll, with 48 percent disapproving of how he's handled the job compared to just 44 percent who approve.
But the most dangerous news for the president politically may be what the poll indicates about his approval rating with the independent voters. Only 38 percent of independents approve of how he's done in office.
Overall, by a 48 percent to 40 percent margin, American voters say that President Obama does not deserve to be re-elected in 2012.
Of course, the president has plenty of time to turn those numbers around before he faces the voters. But Democrats up for election in November do not.
Columnist and commentator Mike Barnicle, asked to evaluate what the president's approval ratings portend for Democrats running in November, shook his head.
"Oh man, look out below," he said. "Look out below. Every indication, every index in this poll, there's more disagreement than agreement with the administration and the leadership of the president. He's got to govern, he's got to lead, and he's got to sound more forceful in his beliefs."
The poll also has discouraging news for Democrats hoping to ride President Obama's coattails to Capitol Hill. Only 12 percent of voters said they would be more likely to vote for candidates because President Obama campaigns for them. Sixteen percent said they would be more likely to vote for candidates if Sarah Palin campaigns for them.
Drawn into the controversy by the report that the administration was worried Sherrod's story would appear on his program, Glenn Beck threw his support to Sherrod Tuesday evening.
"They didn't watch the whole video?" Beck asked incredulously. "When was the last time the NAACP didn't give someone the benefit of the doubt right away who was African-American? Again I point out the Black Panthers. Now if she is just relating a story from 1986, to make a point about how her racial perceptions changed, this woman deserves her job back."
The NAACP initially condemned Sherrod, then asked that Vilsack reconsider his decision because it had been "snookered" by an edited videotape.
Sherrod now says she may not return to the USDA even if the administration offers to give her job back.
"I am just not sure how I would be treated there," Shirley Sherrod said, according to The Associated Press.
CNN's Campbell Brown said Tuesday the NAACP should take responsibility for its own error.
“I don’t believe you were snookered," she told NAACP vice president Hilary Shelton. "You allowed yourself to be snookered and you’re the ones to blame here because you had the tape in your possession and you could have easily watched it and known the full context of her remarks. You didn’t have to take your information solely from these conservative bloggers you now say snookered you.”
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