By Amie Parnes - 03/31/12 04:45 PM EDT
Republicans say President Obama's stumbles this week expose his vulnerabilities heading into the general election.
They argue Obama’s hot-mic comment to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about his “flexibility” on missile defense after the presidential election — paired with the rough treatment his healthcare reform law received at the Supreme Court — prove the president is on shaky ground with voters.
The unscripted moment between Obama and Medvedev on Monday created an instant talking point for Republicans, and the RNC was quick to pounce, releasing a video that ominously asked: “What else is on Obama’s agenda after the election that he isn’t telling you?”
The president emphasized to Medvedev that this year is his “last election,” a comment that played into Republican fears that Obama would make a sharp turn to the left during a second term, when he would be free from the constraints of running for office.
RNC officials said they played up Obama’s “flexibility” comments in fundraising solicitations that were well received by donors.
“[Obama] really helped us this week,” one RNC official said. “We’re getting a lot of mileage out of this. Anything like what we able to do this week [to target Obama] is our goal.”
The White House struggled all week to contain the aftershocks of Obama’s comments and the oral arguments at the Supreme Court. Both subjects — along with the rising price of gas — dominated briefings with reporters at the White House and put aides on the defensive.
The healthcare fury came after legal analysts and other observers ripped the performance of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. at the Supreme Court. One analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, went so far as to call his defense of the law a “train wreck” for the administration.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest came to Verrilli’s defense and said the administration is confident that the healthcare law is constitutional. He told reporters they shouldn’t make predictions about the high court’s decision based on the oral arguments.
“That’s a risky path to go down if you’re placing bets,” Earnest said.
After the “flexibility” remark earlier this week, White House officials tried to parry the attacks on Obama by focusing on GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, who swiped at the president’s policies on Russia and called the country America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
“You don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to know that the greatest threat that the president has been fighting on behalf of the American people is the threat posed by al Qaeda,” Earnest said.
Former White House aides say that, while Obama’s frank comments to Medvedev were a bit of an “eye-roll” moment, the Supreme Court’s decision on the healthcare law is “much more serious.”
“I’m sure no one is clicking their heels over there,” one former Obama aide said. “There’s obviously some concern. No one thinks what happened this week was a home run.”
But the news wasn’t all bad for Team Obama this week. A string of polls, including one from Quinnipiac University released Wednesday, showed the president with a sizable lead over Romney, the likely GOP nominee, in crucial swing states such as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.
“If he’s been one thing, it’s sure-footed and confident,” one former senior administration official said of Obama, adding that Americans recognize his economic policies are working.
While the president “didn’t have a great week,” the former official said, he “won’t have a truly bad week until and unless the Supreme Court rules out the whole law.
“And if it’s not ruled out, it will be as if this whole episode never happened,” the former aide said.
Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said that while this week’s news was a “a problem” for Obama and a “weight that he would prefer not to be carrying,” few people will remember come November.
“It definitely was not a good week for Obama, but nothing that happened this week will do permanent damage,” Jillson said. “He has time to recover.”
But RNC officials say Obama will be in serious trouble this fall if he has more weeks like this one.
“We took them off their game this week,” said one RNC official. “Every minute they’re focused on us, means they’re not focused on their offensive strategy. We like that.”