President Obama complained recently that he had endured the toughest 18 months as a president of any since the Great Depression.
Perhaps he spoke too soon.
While his first year and a half may have been challenging on a policy level, the president is now facing political problems that have thrown his administration completely off message and are likely to inflict lasting damage on him and his reputation as both a political reformer who represents a new kind of politics and as a competent manager of the government.
Everything seems to be converging at once this week.
The nation is waking up Thursday to news that a second Democrat has come forward to confirm that the Obama administration dangled high-ranking government jobs in an attempt to move him out of a challenge to a Democratic incumbent senator.
Andrew Romanoff, a former state legislator in Colorado, said Wednesday evening that deputy White House chief of staff Jim Messina said three separate government jobs “might be available to me were I not pursuing the Senate race.”
Also Thursday, the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich will begin in Chicago. The proceedings will last several months and have begun to gain notice in the press because of the potential for embarrassing information about the president or some of his top advisers – chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, top advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett and others – to emerge.
Blagojevich’s attorneys plan to use large amounts of material in making their case from around 500 hours of telephone calls recorded by federal agents. The calls are between Blagojevich and others. It is unknown whether Obama himself is on any of those calls, but Emanuel in particular is certain to be, and it is already known that Emanuel at one point in the fall of 2008 discussed placing Jarrett in the Senate seat being vacated by Obama as he moved into the presidency.
Both Emanuel and Jarrett were subpoenaed by Blagojevich’s defense on Wednesday to testify at trial, where the former governor faces 24 counts and a maximum of 415 years in prison and fines of as much as $6 million.
All of this is coming at a moment when even liberal columnists such as Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, both of the New York Times, are beginning to turn on Obama for his handling of the oil spill in the Gulf, which has been spewing oil now for roughly six weeks.
This presents the administration with major public relations emergencies on multiple fronts. They can control to some extent the expectations for the stoppage of the oil leak, though the fact that it could continue through August, and the potential effects on the nation’s coast and wildlife, could be very troublesome.
The White House announced Thursday morning that Obama will travel to the Gulf Coast for the third time since the spill and the second time in the last week. That is the most proactive way the president can show he is engaged with the crisis and also take attention away from his mounting political problems.
But they cannot seem to get their hands around the building momentum behind the political horse trading story, which is raising questions about whether top White House officials broke the law and is bound to hurt the president’s approval rating at a time when it has begun to stabilize closer to 50 percent after a very rough fall.
“Whatever the Obama brand use to stand for has been irrevocably shattered by the activities going on inside Barack Obama’s White House,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican whose doggedness has had much to do with keeping the Sestak story in the news.
Issa has been the main voice calling for a Justice Department probe or special prosecutor to look into the Sestak matter.
And in fact, if embarrassing or harmful information about the Obama administration drips out of the Blagojevich trial over the next weeks and months, that could serve as a vehicle for Issa and the GOP to use to continue calling for independent investigations of the Sestak and Romanoff offers. The information that has already come out about both incidents has been, to this point, mostly the result of public pressure that has built up until it was snowballing in the media.
Romanoff made his admission largely because pressure on him to confirm or deny reports from last fall was renewed after the White House was forced last Friday to detail what they offered to Rep. Joe Sestak, Pennsylvania Democrat, to get him out of his Senate primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter.
Yet questions about that incident continue to plague the White House, since there are problems and inconsistencies with their account. White House Counsel Bob Bauer said former President Clinton, at the behest of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, offered a spot on a presidential advisory board to Sestak as bait.
But Sestak would have been ineligible for the post. And many Republicans have argued that it is ridiculous to think that the offer of an advisory board post is enough to tempt a sitting congressman away from his chance at a seat in the Senate.
Those arguments have now been strengthened by the details of Messina’s communications with Romanoff. Messina sent Romanoff an e-mail, which was disclosed to the press Wednesday, detailing the three positions being floated in front of Romanoff’s face. One of them, director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, controls an annual budget of $55 million and a staff of 78.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs e-mailed a statement to reporters on Thursday morning at 6:25 a.m., claiming that Romanoff applied for a job at USAID after Obama was elected and that Messina contacted him to see if he was still interested.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Wednesday night questioned whether another Democratic Senate primary challenger, Bill Halter in Arkansas, had received offers or intimations of potential government jobs as well.