Obama just won a not-so-close reelection battle and will never face another, leaving him less encumbered by the politics of the moment. The scandal hinges on a personal relationship beyond the White House and has not implicated the president or his closest advisers. And the person at the center of it — Petraeus, one of the most accomplished military officers in recent U.S. history — has been beloved by Republicans for years.
As Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who heads the House Homeland Security Committee, put it Tuesday in an interview, “General Petraeus is not known to be any kind of Obama loyalist.
“I have not said a word critical of the president throughout this time,” said King, who often does. “But when I say there are a lot of unanswered questions, in this case, there really are. And I do believe at some point, someone dropped the ball.”
A Washington scandal is rarely helpful, and any distraction is unwelcome as Obama begins negotiations this week with congressional leaders about how to avert year-end tax increases and spending cuts that could push the economy back into recession.
But at least for the moment, as Obama prepares for his first post-election news conference Wednesday, the partisan calculus that has defined Washington for much of his first term has been scrambled.
Obama’s luck as a politician emerged with another sex scandal almost a decade ago, when, as a U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, his popular likely Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, dropped out of the race amid reports that he made his then-wife visit sex clubs. Most recently, Hurricane Sandy arrived a week before Election Day, disrupting GOP rival Mitt Romney’s campaign at a time when he appeared to be gaining ground.
Petraeus’s precipitous fall also may provide Obama with more opportunities than problems, especially in staffing a second-term administration and in winding down the war in Afghanistan.
In the meantime, King and others ask whether anyone inside the White House knew before Obama’s victory last week about the FBI inquiry, conducted over an election-year summer, of Petraeus’s extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, his biographer.
That is the ball that King thinks may have been dropped: inside White House knowledge during the campaign. White House officials have said they were not informed of the probe until the day after the election, when Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. notified them.
King and others say the White House should have been told weeks earlier — by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III or Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — that the CIA director was the subject of a federal investigation.
Holder, in particular, is in the Republican cross hairs, as he has been frequently. Whether he will serve in Obama’s next term, as the president considers whether to spend his political capital on other Cabinet nominees, remains unclear.