Two Scandals Could Hurt Obama’s Reelection Lead
Policy + Politics

Two Scandals Could Hurt Obama’s Reelection Lead

REUTERS/Tim Shaffer

President Obama ventured into the Rose Garden Tuesday morning to announce new measures to crack down on oil market manipulation and address soaring gas prices. But as he departed, a television reporter shouted out the burning question of the hour:  Would the director of the U.S. Secret Service resign?

Obama ignored the question.

With more and more unsavory details leaking out about the Secret Service Colombia sex scandal, it would come as no surprise if Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan were shown the gate before too long. The Obama White House has no compunction about firing underlings to try to blunt political controversy.

But it’s unlikely this mushrooming scandal will disappear any time soon, amid reports that nearly a dozen U.S. Secret Service agents and more than five military personnel caroused and consorted with prostitutes at a hotel  in advance of Obama’s Colombia visit last week. And this comes on top of congressional  hearings this week  into revelations that General Services Administration officials squandered $823,000 on a Las Vegas retreat back in 2010 – complete with a $75,000 bicycle building exercise, a clown show and $6,325 spent on commemorative coins.

"No wonder the American people have lost faith in their government. I want indictments!"

So far, at least a half dozen  House and Senate committees have opened investigations into the GSA and Secret Service scandals, with many other Republicans seemingly eager to join in the finger wagging and condemnations. “As I look through this, there’s no wonder that the American people have lost faith in their government,” lamented freshman Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa. “I want indictments!” declared Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.

Before all this misery beset the administration, it looked as if Obama had turned the corner on the economy and was back in the political catbird’s seat heading into the fall election campaign. While unemployment, economic growth and the housing market still left much to be desired, Obama could make the plausible argument that he had succeeded in leading the country out of the worst financial meltdown and recession of modern times, that he saved the U.S. auto industry by bailing out GM and Chrysler, and that he restored investor and consumer confidence

By contrast, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, had been so brutally savaged by his  GOP primary rivals as a flip-flopper, liar and faux conservative – and had done such a good job of alienating women and Hispanic voters – that the November election was shaping up as a cakewalk for Obama.  Romney was dismissed by liberal critics and pundits as a  politically tone deaf multi-millionaire aristocrat who boasted about enjoying firing incompetent people, who said he wasn’t worried about poor people and who confided that his wife owned two Cadillacs.

But practically overnight, the whole complexion of the contest has changed. The race has begun to tighten, based on fresh polling; economic trends are getting worrisome again, and the European debt crisis has taken another bad turn.

The Gallup Organization’s inaugural daily tracking poll had Romney leading Obama by two  percentage points, 47 percent to 45 percent, while Rasmussen Tracking had Romney up by one point. Obama led Romney by nine points in a CNN/Opinion Research poll, 52 percent to 43 percent, and Reuters/Ipsos had the president up by four points.

Moreover, fresh analyses of the electoral map by RealClearPolitics, the Washington Post and other news organizations show that Romney begins the general election campaign with 170 of the 270 electoral votes he would need to win the election. In order to pick up the additional 100 electoral votes, Romney only needs some states that routinely went to Republicans before the 2008 race (namely Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Montana)  while retaining a few states that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., managed to win – including Arizona and Missouri.

 Obama made history by becoming the first African-American to win the presidency in 2008, but history may not be on his side this time. Three presidents who unsuccessfully sought a second term since 1976 – Republican Gerald Ford in 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Republican George H.W. Bush – all presided over economies with unemployment rates that were lower than the 8.2 percent unemployment rate today and all but one with economic growth rates higher than the current 1.7 percent increase in GDP.

Last weekend, senior Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod argued that Obama must be judged on the progress he has made over the past three years, rather than on the latest series of unemployment and economic indicators.  “There’s no doubt that we walked into the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Axelrod told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. “ Everybody agrees on that.”

But not everyone shares Axelrod’s enthusiasm over Obama’s economic stewardship. Only 44 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the economy, while 50 percent disapprove, according to the latest survey by American Research Group in March. That was a vast improvement over the January results, when only 35 percent approved and 60 percent disapproved.

A total of 41 percent of Americans say the national economy is getting better and 52 percent say the national economy will be better a year from now, which are the highest ratings in a year, according to ARG. And 36 percent of Americans say their household financial situations will be better in a year.

With Americans fixated on the economy, jobs and gasoline prices, Republicans see a path to victory this fall if the current economic picture remains fairly static through November. In another sign that the GOP is beginning to come together after one of the most divisive primary campaigns in memory, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., yesterday endorsed Romney and offered effusive praise.

“I think Mitt Romney has a set of economic policies that can put America back to work” in contrast to Obama’s “failed policies,” Boehner said.  And in a display of bravado, Romney offered Obama some unsolicited advice in an interview with Diane Sawyer of  ABC News: “Start packing.”

This all goes to explain why the embarrassing scandals at the GSA – the federal government’s chief property manager – and within the vaunted Secret Service are unwelcome news for the Obama administration. Investigators now suspect that as many as 21 prostitutes were brought by Secret Service and military personnel to the Hotel Caribe in Cartagena, Colombia, last week during a night of carousing, a dramatic increase in the number of women previously disclosed by government officials, according to news  reports.

At his daily briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama has “confidence” in Sullivan, and will await the results of an internal investigation before weighing in further on the future of the agency.

It’s far too soon to say  whether either the Secret Service or GSA scandals  will hurt Obama or the Democrats in the fall campaign, although it’s safe to say they won’t help. “Any time the government is seen to misbehave or underperform on a president’s watch, I think it does have an effect, fairly or unfairly,” said Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C. “I don’t suspect it will have a major impact, but certainly builds on the narrative  things are not going well.”

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the Republican Senate campaign committee, said he doubts Obama’s critics could “pin” the Secret Service’s major breach of conduct and security on the president, but that the GSA scandal is a different matter. The GSA inspector general testified on Monday that he is investigating possible bribery and kickbacks in the agency, as well as the absurd amounts spent on an October 2010 conference at the M Resort Spa Casino in Las Vegas.

“I think unfortunately it’s a metaphor for what people see in Washington,” Cornyn said. “And I think that could have some negative effect [on the president] although I think it’s more of a perception issue. I mean, people are just mad about the federal government. They see it spending money recklessly, and that’s certainly consistent with that theme. So I could see there could be some serious fallout over it.”

Democrats, of course, see it differently. “This has nothing to do with [political] parties,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State, the Senate Democratic campaign committee chairperson. “I mean everyone understands that the Secret Service is nonpartisan, and obviously there is an investigation going on. No one should jump to conclusions.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada seemed to be more concerned about the fact that Las Vegas might be tarnished by the GSA than any long-term political fallout.  He told reporters yesterday that the GSA scandal “has nothing to do with Las Vegas, it has everything to do with stupidity and lack of common sense.”