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

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; A01

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."

Obama himself is focused more closely on reassuring the public that he is working to gain control of the oil spill. He defended his handling of the crisis again on Thursday. In an interview with CNN's Larry King, the president said he is "furious at this entire situation" but added that anger alone will not solve the problems. "I would love to just spend a lot of my time venting and yelling at people," he said, "But that's not the job I was hired to do. My job is to solve this problem, and ultimately this isn't about me and how angry I am."

Cloud of controversy

Administration officials may be frustrated that Obama's accomplishments -- passage of major health-care legislation among the most significant -- have been overshadowed by recent controversies. Friday's jobs report, which forecasters predict will show substantial growth over the past month, is expected to provide the White House with good news about the economy -- and give officials something to point at to buttress their argument that their economic policies are working. But it may be overshadowed by other problems that continue to weigh on the administration's standing.

Only last week, the White House sought to end the constant cable TV chatter over what inducements were offered to Sestak to end his campaign. A report from White House counsel Robert F. Bauer described the role former president Bill Clinton played as an intermediary on behalf of the administration, but ultimately left unresolved questions about what other steps officials took and just what was offered.

Gibbs struggled Tuesday to answer reporters' questions about the episode, several times referring them to the report -- which did not contain the answers.

Then came Romanoff and his release of an e-mail from Messina describing three possible jobs in the administration. Gibbs issued a statement early Thursday explaining that Romanoff had initiated interest in an administration job long before he decided to run for the Senate. Left unclear was whether administration officials had seriously considered him for any of those jobs before they learned he was preparing to challenge Bennet.

Bauer's report said nothing was illegal about the Sestak episode, and officials said the same about talks with Romanoff. But what troubles White House allies is that the handling of both cases enlarged the story while undermining the administration's pledge to run a transparent operation shorn of politics as usual.

Another Democratic strategist, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer an analysis of White House operations, said Obama's top advisers appear most focused on protecting his standing and his reelection prospects. "At the end of the day, they tend to 'half do' on problems they believe aren't directly about the president and/or 2012," the strategist said. "In short, they are ambivalent about dealing with these things and it gets them into trouble."

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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