White House is feeling weight of controversies surrounding oil spill, elections

This shows 24 hours of accelerated video, beginning at 1 pm CDT Wednesday, from the site of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Video Courtesy of BP.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

At virtually every turn lately, the White House cannot shake the appearance that it is hamstrung and a step behind. From a major crisis such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to smaller and seemingly avoidable controversies over internal Democratic Party politics, President Obama and his team are on the defensive.

The question many Republicans and even some Democratic allies of the administration are asking is whether the collective weight of all these problems will diminish the president's ability to get his agenda through Congress, or further weaken his party before the November midterm elections.

That all this has happened to a White House staffed by the team that so successfully navigated the 2008 presidential campaign is a source of surprise and consternation for Democrats. The missteps have also become easy ammunition for Republicans seeking to capitalize on what may be self-inflicted wounds.

Defenders of the administration argue that there was nothing the White House could have done early on to stop the oil that has been gushing from the well in the gulf. They also play down questions about whether the administration offered possible jobs to Senate candidates in Pennsylvania and Colorado to entice them to drop primary challenges against candidates favored by the White House. But they also note that whether these problems are large or small, there is a danger that they will affect public perceptions of the administration's competence.

"In this environment, the only thing worse than doing 'business as usual' in Washington is doing it incompetently," said John Weaver, a Republican strategist. "Heightened partisanship, a bumbling response to the gulf disaster and these poorly executed attempts to coerce Washington's will in primaries are about to define his first term in the minds of an angry electorate."

Doug Hattaway, a Democratic strategist, offered a more positive assessment. "I think the White House has been doing an admirable job, given the sheer enormity of the challenges," he said. "It's hard to manage all of the big issues well and at the same time avoid setting little political brushfires, which is how I think this other stuff can be categorized."

A step backward

The latest setback came Wednesday night, when Andrew Romanoff, a former state House speaker who is challenging incumbent Michael Bennet in Colorado's Democratic Senate primary, issued a statement describing his interaction with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina. Romanoff said Messina, in seeking to gauge his willingness to quit the race, raised the possibility of three jobs in the administration.

Romanoff and the White House said no formal job offer was made, and he did not drop out of the race. But the revelations came days after the White House sought to end an even bigger controversy over whether it had offered Rep. Joe Sestak a position to keep him from challenging party-switcher Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate primary. Sestak refused and went on to beat Specter last month.

Cause for concern

Democratic strategists said there is cause for concern, but they were reluctant Thursday to speak on the record and risk the wrath of the White House. Their critiques, however, suggested that even within the party, there are questions about the effectiveness of the administration's political operation and its communications strategy.

"If I had a tombstone for every time they declared us dead, we could open a cemetery," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

White House intervention in contested primaries has occurred during many presidencies and is rarely considered unusual or scandalous. What strikes Democratic allies of the White House is the administration's inability to keep its actions from blossoming into controversies and the evident lack of success by the president's advisers in working their will within the party.

"They don't have the leverage that past White House political operations have had," said one strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation candidly. "They've tried to influence these races and nobody's listening. . . . A sitting president who arguably still had some political capital to spend was not able to prevent some pretty divisive primaries."

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