By Amie Parnes - 04/19/12 10:22 PM EDT
The General Services Administration (GSA) and Secret Service scandals have been a distraction for the White House as it moves toward the general election and fights the perception of an out-of-control government.
The double dose of scandals has made it difficult for the White House to get its message out, and Republicans have piled on, pushing a tone of cynicism and disappointment with a government they say needs to be reined in.
Other Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Obama should have taken more of a leadership role.
“I don’t sense that this president has shown that kind of managerial leadership,” Sessions told reporters on Thursday.
The admission by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that he has been flying home frequently to California on the Pentagon’s tab at the cost of $32,000 per round trip is another headache.
Add that all to the reports of U.S. soldiers taking pictures with body parts in Afghanistan, and it equals one hot mess for the White House, observers say.
“It’s been a bad couple of weeks for the White House, and this isn’t such a great week either,” Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who served as a campaign aide to Al Gore, acknowledged. “It’s definitely a minor distraction.
“But as I learned in the Gore campaign, voters don’t tally up the winners of weeks, voters think about the issue and which candidates speak to the issues they care about.”
That hasn’t stopped Republicans from attempting to politicize the issue. While Republicans have mostly left the Secret Service scandal alone, they have seized on the GSA episode.
“It’s another example of government waste,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary at the Republican National Committee (RNC). “Obama would rather increase taxes than work on our spending. Taxpayers have to look at that and wonder, ‘Why would we give the government more money when you can’t even manage the money we have now?’ ”
Kukowski said in the months ahead the RNC will continue to use the GSA example — in addition to the waste behind the failed energy company Solyndra — to explain that these events have happened under Obama’s watch.
“Anything that speaks to government waste is fair game,” she said.
In a radio interview on Wednesday, Romney also began to ratchet up the pressure on the scandals.
“The right thing to do is to remove people who have violated the public trust and have put their playtime and their personal interests ahead of the interests of the nation,” he said.
White House officials are quick to point out that swift action was taken on the GSA scandal after it was revealed that the GSA paid about $823,000 for the posh conference in Las Vegas. The GSA administrator, Martha Johnson, ended up resigning, her top two deputies were let go and four other people went on leaves of absence.
“These things happen,” said one former administration official. “At the end of the day, you can’t expect that the White House is going to know if you have a rogue person acting badly. What you can do is set high standards and let people know what’s acceptable and what is not. And the White House did just that. They responded quickly.”
But the front-page headlines keep coming.
The White House briefing on Thursday was dominated by questions about the Secret Service scandal. If press secretary Jay Carney was seeking to drive any kind of message from the White House, it was, arguably, impossible.
Carney was questioned on government accountability on the Secret Service scandal, and some wondered why Obama hadn’t taken more of a stance. ABC chief White House correspondent Jake Tapper even mentioned that former President Harry Truman had a plaque on his desk reading, “The buck stops here.”
But the White House spokesman fired back: “Perhaps it would be in the interest of a complete and thorough and fair investigation not to make determinations about the conclusions of an investigation before they’ve even been reached.
“That’s the president’s position,” Carney said. “I think that is a position that fits naturally into a general sense of appropriateness and justice and the pursuit of the truth. And that’s the position we’re going to take.”
Later, when a reporter asked about Sessions’s comments on Obama’s managerial problems, Carney said, “That sounds very much like a lawmaker attempting to politicize something that is not at all political.”
On Wednesday, when Obama traveled to Ohio to deliver a message on the economy, Carney was asked if the collective scandals drowned out the president’s message. The White House spokesman denied that rationale.
“I don’t think we look at it that way,” Carney said. “I think most Americans are extremely focused on the economy, making ends meet.”
It’s too soon to say if the scandals are affecting Obama’s reelection bid. But a CNN poll released on Tuesday showed that 46 percent of those surveyed trusted Obama more to manage the government effectively, while 37 percent preferred Romney.
At the same time, political observers say, the recent scandals won’t be politically damaging for Obama.
Relative to other scandals — including the one former President George W. Bush faced with Hurricane Katrina and FEMA, “it seems so small,” said Sanford Gordon, a professor of politics at New York University who has researched and written about the GSA.
Gordon said that while the episodes are “certainly embarrassing” for both the GSA and the Secret Service, he doubts it will make headlines in the months to come and hurt Obama’s reelection bid.
Simmons agrees with that sentiment.
“It’s a distraction from trying to prove their case about Mitt Romney,” Simmons said of the White House. “They don’t like it, but they’re not packing up their offices because of these scandals.”