Showing Concern for the President, Even While Criticizing Him - NYTimes.com - Liar Liar!
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Showing Concern for the President, Even While Criticizing Him - NYTimes.com

WASHINGTON — President Obama must be touched by all the concern Republicans are showing him these days. As Congress examines security breaches at the White House, even opposition lawmakers who have spent the last six years fighting his every initiative have expressed deep worry for his security.

“The American people want to know: Is the president safe?” Representative Darrell Issa of California, the Republican committee chairman who has made it his mission to investigate all sorts of Obama administration missteps, solemnly intoned as he opened a hearing into the lapses on Tuesday.

Democrats joined in the grilling, and some were as tough as or tougher than any Republican on the Secret Service director, Julia Pierson. But privately, some Democratic officeholders and strategists have complained that the episode contributes to a broader impression that the Obama administration’s competence has come under fire on a variety of fronts, including last year’s botched rollout of Mr. Obama’s health care program, the breakdown of services at the Veterans Affairs Department and the handling of a series of international crises.

Coming just weeks before midterm elections, they said, the intense focus on the matter might further undercut confidence in the government Mr. Obama runs even though it was hardly his fault an intruder with a knife made it into the White House.

“This is an opportunity to make it seem like nobody’s in charge in the Obama administration, even though it’s almost certainly not the case that political appointees could have done anything to change the facts in this situation,” said Matt Bennett, a White House aide under President Bill Clinton and now vice president of Third Way, a political group. “I’m not surprised that they’re doing this.”

Like other Democrats, Mr. Bennett said Congress had a duty to exercise oversight over the Secret Service and investigate what went wrong, and he said serious questions had been raised in recent days. At the same time, Democrats said, if it happened to damage the perception of the president in the process, Republicans would not object.

“I do think for a lot of Republican congressmen, this is a twofer,” said Erik Smith, a former House Democratic aide and a campaign adviser to Mr. Obama. “The Secret Service may be in the line of fire, but they’re not the only target.”

Not every Democrat sees it that way. Paul Begala, no stranger to partisan warfare as a longtime adviser to Mr. Clinton, said Republican lawmakers were asking the right questions out of genuine concern. “This is totally on the level,” he said. “They’re acting like real human beings and patriotic Americans.”

Other Democrats said Republicans had good reason to preserve that impression. “So far there is bipartisan outrage and concern,” said Margie Omero, a strategist for Democratic candidates for nearly 20 years who has studied midterm voters in swing Senate races this year. “But at this time of year, candidates will try just about anything to find an opening. It could definitely backfire if Republicans look like they’re making political hay out of a threat to the president’s life.”

Republicans rejected the notion that their inquiry had any political implications. “This is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of a subcommittee looking into the episode. “This is an American issue. I don’t want it to be the political football, but we in the United States of America are self-critical. It’s one of the beauties of our nation is we do hold ourselves accountable.”

And they were aided by the tough statements voiced at Tuesday’s hearing by several of the committee’s Democrats, who told Ms. Pierson that they did not have faith in her leadership and accused her of caring more about protecting her reputation than the president’s life.

While the director of the Secret Service is appointed by the president, the White House under either party typically defers to the agency on how to handle the president’s security. Even when a president is angry at missteps — as reports suggest Mr. Obama was after a 2011 shooting at the White House when one of his daughters was home — he rarely expresses that publicly. For one, it might come across as impolitic. For another, it might offend the very people a president depends on most.

So even though Mr. Obama had nothing to do with the various problems involving his security beyond appointing Ms. Pierson last year, his White House now finds itself in the position of defending the Secret Service to a degree.

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