It isn't Mitt Romney who's giving President Obama fits as he pivots to re-election mode. It's those federal bureaucrats carousing in Las Vegas, the Secret Service consorting with Colombian prostitutes and U.S. soldiers posing with bloody enemy corpses.
The scandals are taking a toll. They are distracting embarrassments that are dominating public attention while Mr. Obama seeks to focus on difficulties abroad and jobs at home. And they are giving Republicans an opportunity to question his competence and leadership, an opening for Mr. Romney in a race so close that any advantage might make a difference.
Even if the Democratic president escapes being defined by these flare-ups, they still feed a story line that can erode public confidence in Washington institutions, fuel a perception of federal excess and frustrate Mr. Obama's argument that government can be a force for good.
The White House response has been textbook — a mix of outrage and deflection.
"The president has been crystal clear since he was a candidate about the standards that he insists be met by those who work for the federal government and on behalf of the American people and for the American people," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
But taken altogether, the events have overwhelmed the president's agenda. The Secret Service scandal broke while Mr. Obama was in Cartagena last weekend for a Summit of the Americas with more than 30 Western Hemisphere leaders. Back home, the headlines and the news anchors were hardly focusing on the summit, instead playing up the fact that 11 Secret Service agents and uniformed officers had been sent home on accusations of misconduct.
By the time the president got home, General Services Administration officials were appearing before congressional committees about a lavish Las Vegas conference and junkets to resorts, and more evidence of excess was beginning to emerge.
Mr. Obama's attempts to draw attention to his efforts against oil market manipulation on Tuesday and to help the economy on Wednesday were drowned out by further Secret Service revelations and by the publication of gruesome photos depicting GIs with the bodies of Afghan insurgents.
"Even though you may not be losing ground because it's not the White House taking the hits, you're no longer gaining ground because the White House doesn't get its message out," said Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama quickly tried to put distance between himself and the accounts of misbehavior. White House spokesmen avoided getting into specifics, instead citing investigations under way and referring reporters to the Secret Service or the GSA or the Pentagon.
"If it's at an agency, White Houses do their best to keep it arm's length and let the agency take the hits and deal with it," Mr. Fleischer said. "I think that's what's going on here."
Yet, the president can't turn his back on the problems, either, and is ultimately held responsible for restoring the reputations of troubled agencies.
"Part of the president's job is to protect the institutions of government," said Paul Light, an expert on government bureaucracies and professor of public service at New York University. "He is administrator in chief whether he likes it or not."
By Elaine Donnelly
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