The White House has been caught off guard by the negative reaction to the deal that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
It has been particularly surprised by criticism of Bergdahl, who is accused of walking away from his unit shortly before being abducted by the Taliban.
Political observers say the White House miscalculations were highlighted by the decision to have President Obama appear alongside Bergdahl’s parents in a Saturday night address at the White House Rose Garden.
“They put too positive a spin on what is a very ambiguous set of circumstances,” Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson said.
“A big part of the WH stew on this is typical photo op hubris,” said Boston University political strategist Tobe Berkovitz. “Instead of just bringing Bergdahl back, they had to do the full kissy-huggy announcement with mom and dad figuring this good news would push the VA mess off the front page.”
The administration believed any criticism of the deal would be overshadowed by a positive story: the freeing of a U.S. soldier after five years of captivity in Afghanistan, just as the war there is drawing to an end.
It expected some criticism over the release of the Guantánamo prisoners, and it also expected lawmakers would be angered they weren’t informed of the deal in advance. But it didn’t see the criticism of Bergdahl himself coming.
Despite the blowback, which the White House sought to quell with a classified briefing for the entire Senate on Wednesday night, the administration remains confident that the deal to release Bergdahl will eventually be seen as good policy and the right thing to do.
“I think the principle of leaving no man behind will ultimately win out,” said a senior White House official, who predicted most people will agree that the president was compelled to seek Bergdahl’s rescue.
The White House also blames the media, in part, for the blowback and argues not enough consideration is being given to what the reaction would have been if it has turned down a deal to return a sick soldier in Taliban custody.
The administration has struggled to contain criticism of the deal and has sometimes stumbled.
Comments on Sunday by national security adviser Susan Rice that have been heavily criticized by Republicans in Congress.
A military investigation into Bergdahl’s disappearance found he intentionally left his tent after becoming disillusioned with the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, officials who have viewed the report told The Associated Press and The New York Times.
Yet Rice said during an appearance on ABC’s This Week that he served “with honor and distinction.”
Despite public criticism from some soldiers and families, administration officials believe most military personnel and veterans strongly agree that service members captured on the battlefield should be recovered, regardless of how they came into the enemy’s hands.
Initial reaction to Bergdahl’s release appears to partially validate that logic, as lawmakers and candidates took to social media to cheer his return, and his Idaho hometown scheduled a homecoming celebration.
But angry complaints from former service members and families appear to have galvanized public opinion against Bergdahl — and, by extension, the administration. In recent days, some lawmakers have deleted tweets celebrating his release.
The White House and its allies are starting to fight back.
Tuesday night, White House aides circulated on social media an interview with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in which he explicitly endorsed a five-for-one prisoner swap to regain Bergdahl. And on Wednesday, Reid highlighted “hypocrisy” by Republican lawmakers.
Reid said that “just a couple of weeks ago,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) released a statement calling on the Pentagon to “do all it can to find Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and bring him home.”
He also noted a resolution sponsored by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) expressing a sense of the Senate that “no member of the armed forces who was missing in action should be left behind.”
Other administration officials sat for TV interviews to defend the principle that the president had no option but to rescue Bergdahl.
“When one of your shipmates goes overboard, you go after — you go get them. You don't ask whether he jumped or he was pushed or he fell. You go get him first, and then you find out,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told CNN on Tuesday.
Still, political experts said that the efforts to contain the controversy might be too little, too late.
“You can laugh at the Republicans for being so transparently partisan, but you also have to challenge the Obama administration on how they can be surprised by this,” said Jillson. “They’re back on their heels now, and why they can’t get a better presentation of their side of these issues I can’t quite understand.”