WASHINGTON — It isn't Mitt Romney who's giving Barack Obama fits as the president 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 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 Romney in a race so close that any advantage can 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 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," says spokesman Jay Carney.
But taken altogether, the events have overwhelmed the president's agenda. The Secret Service scandal broke while 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. Obama's attempts to draw attention to his efforts against oil market manipulation Tuesday and to help the economy Wednesday were drowned out by further Secret Service revelations and by the publication of gruesome photos depicting GIs with the bodies of Afghan insurgents.
Nugent in the clear: After meeting with rocker Ted Nugent on Thursday, the Secret Service says its probe into his words about President Barack Obama is over. Last weekend during a National Rifle Association meeting in St. Louis, Nugent rallied support for Mitt Romney and said he would be "dead or in jail by this time next year" if Obama is re-elected.
"The issue has been resolved," agency spokesman Brian Leary said in a statement.