By Amie Parnes and Jeremy Herb - 02/01/12 02:40 AM EST
The White House’s weeks-long effort to counterprogram against the GOP presidential primary fight has veered off course over the past two days.
To date, President Obama has been successful in seizing the spotlight from Republican contenders after contests in several primary states.
Almost instantly, Republicans and reporters pounced on Obama’s off-the-cuff remarks.
Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary at the Republican National Committee (RNC), immediately fired off an email to reporters: “Maybe there’s a difference in how the president sees our economy and how Americans see our economy,” she said. And in a matter of hours, the RNC created a Web ad, hammering Obama as out of touch.
Obama also earned unwanted media attention by for the first time acknowledging the classified drone program and defending the use of drone strikes to kill members of al Qaeda in countries such as Pakistan.
Newspapers overseas said Obama was “confirming” and “admitting” that the United States is flying drones over Pakistan, and a spokesman for Pakistan’s foreign ministry called the drone strikes “unlawful, counterproductive and hence unacceptable.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney was left to field questions about Obama’s comments in Tuesday’s press briefing from reporters who asked if Obama had slipped up, revealing a little more than he might have intended.
“He’s the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States,” Carney replied. “I would point you to his comments. I’m not going to discuss broadly or specifically covert programs. I would just point you to what he said.”
A senior administration official told CNN on Tuesday that Obama’s acknowledgment of the drone attacks in Pakistan was “neither a slip-up” nor a “secret message to the Pakistanis.”
The official said Obama was simply speaking about something widely known and that the drone missions are “precise” and “targeted to avoid casualties.”
Outside the White House, however, critics questioned the comments.
“It’s hard to see what the geopolitical reason would be for doing that at this point,” said Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “At a time when you’re trying to re-establish some kind of normalcy … it’s a little incomprehensible about how that fits into a strategy that makes any sense.”
Obama previously has been able to steal media attention from the GOP in a positive way, such as when he announced he was recess-appointing Richard Cordray to lead the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau the day after the Iowa caucuses. That move pumped energy into Obama’s political base.
The White House wanted the story on Tuesday to focus on Obama’s efforts to help the economy.
In the morning, as voters headed to the polls in Florida, Obama released the details of a small-business proposal, calling it “a symbol of how important it is for us to spur entrepreneurship.”
Later on Tuesday, Obama made a surprise trip to the Washington Auto Show to turn attention to one of the biggest success stories of his administration.
Speaking to reporters after he inspected more than a dozen electric and hybrid models from Ford, Dodge and General Motors, Obama proclaimed, “The U.S. auto industry is back.”
“When you look at all these cars, it is a testimony to the outstanding work that’s been done by American workers, American designers,” Obama said after touring the convention center hall.
“The fact that GM is back to No. 1 I think shows the kind of turnaround that’s possible when it comes to American manufacturing,” he said. “It’s good to remember the fact that there were some folks who were willing to let this industry die. Because of folks coming together, we are now back in a place where we can compete with any car company in the world.
But on Capitol Hill, some lawmakers were talking about the drones.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, appeared to wade into the debate at a hearing with top intelligence officials on Tuesday.
“Once again, this committee has been put in a difficult position of trying to avoid any mention of classified matters when various parts of the executive branch may be doing somewhat the opposite,” Feinstein said in her opening statement. “I ask members to be careful in their questions and statements and to remember that public discussion of some intelligence programs and assets can lead to them being compromised.”
Feinstein then said that “on the particular issue of drone strikes,” no other topic receives more attention than “the United States counterterrorism efforts going on along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.”
Feinstein later said in a statement: “I was not criticizing the president. I was reminding the committee about protecting classified information.”
Obama on Wednesday will try to take some of the attention away from Mitt Romney’s victory in Florida by making an announcement on housing.
When reporters asked Tuesday if he could release the details of his plan, Obama replied, “I will talk to you then about it. I wouldn’t want to use up all my good stuff now.”