Leon Panetta’s critique of President Obama turned scalding Tuesday as the former Pentagon and CIA chief ripped the man he once served, bolstering the Republican case against Obama for the midterm elections.
In a series of rapid-fire media appearances — including interviews with CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Yahoo News and USA Today — Panetta has delivered blow after blow, casting Obama as too willing to “step back and give up” when confronted by tough problems.
During an appearance Tuesday night on "The O'Reilly Factor," Panetta doubted whether the president had the will to make tough decisions.
“I think the big picture is that this is a president who I think wants to do the right thing for the country,” Panetta told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. “The real question is whether or not he’s willing to fight to get that done.”
Earlier in the day, he said Obama damaged America’s credibility around the world by not attacking Syria when it crossed his “red line” last year, and suggested policy decisions made by the president had contributed to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In one interview, he suggested simply that Obama might have “lost his way.”
The public lashing from Panetta, who is promoting a memoir, is creating a headache for the White House at a time when Democrats are desperate to turn the national debate away from foreign policy.
Many of Panetta’s points mirror criticism from Republicans, who are seizing on his remarks to argue that even members of Obama’s inner circle recognize the failures of his presidency.
“Secretary Panetta and others are echoing what is obvious from the outside, but it’s more powerful when it’s coming from people on the inside,” Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), a possible contender for the presidential nomination in 2016, told The Washington Post.
The snowballing critique has also put a renewed focus on the substantive policy differences between Obama and his heir apparent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton generated headlines of her own over the summer with criticism of the president’s strategy on Syria, exposing broader divisions within the Democratic Party about how to deal with growing threats overseas.
The White House has shrugged off Panetta’s criticism, though former spokesman Bill Burton lashed out at the former CIA chief and Pentagon leader in an interview Tuesday night, calling the commentary “dishonorable” and “sad.”
“He is a guy who has had a long and storied career in Washington and has really served his country well,” Burton said. “And it is kind of sad that in its twilight he's done such a dishonorable thing by — at a time — by going after the president that he served at a time of a lot of different instabilities around the world.”
Administration officials have predicted the media spotlight on Panetta would “burn bright but fade quickly.”
“In the first term we would’ve run around like a chicken with our head cut off,” one official said. “But in the second term, we’ve learned this will be big on cable, have its day in the sun, but ultimately not amount to much.
“I don’t think this is something that is sort of hugely disruptive to what we’re doing or the least bit disruptive to the underlying strategy for confronting the challenge of terrorism in the Middle East,” the official said.
Nor, the official said, did the White House worry that Panetta’s remarks might undermine support for the president’s strategy to confront ISIS.
Still, Burton's comments highlight how allies of the president are seething behind the scenes.
And Panetta’s broadsides couldn’t come at a worse time for Democrats.
Obama’s poll numbers plunged in August after ISIS released a series of beheading videos, but recent surveys had shown his numbers rebounding after the decision to expand airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
Former officials and political strategists say the friendly fire from Panetta has to be maddening for a White House that is looking to right the ship ahead of the midterm elections.
“It’s certainly not a helpful message to have out there,” said one former senior administration official.
“If he has a point, who is it serving?” the former official said. “I don’t know what his motivation is. Leon is an amazing human being and a fantastic leader but it seems a little self-serving. ... There’s a time and a place for people to write these kinds of books.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Vice President Biden, who last week flashed anger when asked about Panetta’s book during a town-hall event at Harvard University.
“I’m finding that former administration officials, as soon as they leave, write books, which I think is inappropriate,” Biden said. “No, I’m serious. I do think it’s inappropriate. At least give the guy a chance to get out of office.”
Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to former President George W. Bush, predicted administration officials are stewing behind the scenes.
“[Panetta’s] an old hand,” Fratto said. “If he’s saying something, I don’t think he’s doing it with malice. He’s doing it for historical accuracy.”
But Fratto said he could sympathize with the White House’s plight.
“You wish that people could hold their fire until the president isn’t the president anymore,” Fratto said. “Can you just wait until the guy you were advising isn’t president anymore and can defend himself a little more, too?”
Democratic commentator Brent Budowsky, a columnist for The Hill, said it is “despicable” that Panetta would go after the president so close to the midterm elections.
“It is outrageous and sickening he’d put it out shortly before a midterm to make money on book sales in a way that would hurt Democrats running in Congress as well as the White House,” he said.
Still, Budowsky and the former administration official both said the long-term impact of Panetta’s criticism would be negligible.
“I don’t think Americans will take the time to listen to a former Cabinet official, even if it is Leon Panetta,” the official said.
Even if the White House is worried about the damage from Panetta’s remarks, confronting them more forcefully could make matters worse.
“You have to lean toward not responding,” said Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer. “It’s hard for the president to get deep into debate with a former official in his presidency. The more he talks about it, the more it remains an issue and the more he seems defensive.”
One danger for the White House is that Panetta, who served as chief of staff to former President Clinton, gives cover to other former officials who are looking to vent frustrations.
“It certainly plays into this debate that’s going to happen in the Democratic Party because [Hillary Clinton’s] running,” Zelizer said. “And for Democrats seeking to distance themselves from certain policies, this is the kind of material that can serve as evidence that not everyone was on board with this.”
The administration official said the White House does not think Panetta’s criticism was orchestrated to help Hillary Clinton, and downplayed the risk of it fracturing the party.
“These are criticisms we’ve been answering for months now,” the official said. “There’s not a lot of new there.”
This post was updated on Oct. 8 at 9:27 a.m.