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Coming Up Short

When voters start questioning your competence, it's like pulling a thread that can unravel an entire presidency.

Congressional Republicans and the Obama White House are both on edge these days. That odd-couple combo isn't surprising, given recent events in Pennsylvania and the Gulf of Mexico.

Republican officials are sifting through the debris from their special-election defeat in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District, searching for clues as to why they lost by 8 percentage points in a district that John McCain won in 2008 and where President Obama's job-approval rating is a lowly 38 percent. Meanwhile, mounting criticism, whether fair or not, of the Obama administration's handling of the BP oil leak off the Louisiana coast is increasingly reminiscent of the allegations of government bungling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and is resurrecting ghosts that haunted the final years of George W. Bush's presidency. Bush learned the hard way that when voters start questioning your competence, it's like pulling a thread that can unravel an entire presidency.


What Obama and his team should have done differently about the leak isn't clear. Experts certainly don't seem to agree. Yet it is safe to say that Obama is not projecting the image of competence that he displayed as a presidential nominee in September 2008 during the credit crisis, when he looked cool, calm, and collected -- so much more on top of the issue than McCain. At that time, the strength and competence he exuded allayed concerns about his inexperience. But today, after 16 months in office, his administration appears as clueless about the oil-leak crisis as any of the other actors on this stage.

Presidents and their teams are held to a higher standard than oil company executives or environmental and energy experts, none of whom has to face voters. Although the Obama White House is no doubt frustrated that the experts can't agree on how to stop the leak and minimize the damage -- some of them seem to come up with impressive-sounding arguments against almost every imaginable option -- it will get little sympathy from a public that just wants the mess cleaned up.

For their part, House Republicans need to figure out how much of a mess they are in. Now is the time to ask whether they have the mechanical apparatus to make the most of what seems to be a golden opportunity to pick up dozens of House seats, and possibly control of the chamber.


This fall, the GOP will have at least 60 competitive races. But on May 18, when there was just one, Republicans came up far short of what was needed to win.

Apologists will say that Pennsylvania's knock-down, drag-out Democratic Senate primary fight between incumbent Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak drove up Democratic turnout, thus boosting the fortunes of the party's 12th District nominee, Mark Critz. But that doesn't explain why many Republicans, conservatives, and alienated independents failed to show up for Tim Burns, the Republican nominee.

Where was the once-vaunted Republican get-out-the-vote operation when this was the only race on the party's front burner? In the January special Senate election in Massachusetts, a state where there are also a few more Democrats than Republicans, victorious GOP nominee Scott Brown exceeded McCain's 2008 vote. But Burns received less than half of the McCain vote in the 12th District. So, forget the Democratic vote totals. The question is, where were the Republicans and conservative-leaning independents in a district in which the president's job-approval rating is so low that the territory almost qualifies as a no-fly zone for Air Force One?

If the GOP probes deeply enough, it will no doubt find quite a few problems, because no one failing fully explains a political disaster of this magnitude. Although the GOP candidate was good enough, neither his campaign nor the National Republican Congressional Committee's work on his behalf told even a moderately compelling story of his life or settled on a single coherent message. All in all, it was a weak advertising and promotional effort, one unworthy of a party that just half a year ago ran a flawless campaign in getting Bob McDonnell elected governor of Virginia.


One astute pollster privately argues that the parties are straddling the tipping point of control of the House. I'm not certain that place has been reached.

But, as House Republicans should have learned in Pennsylvania, neither party can afford to take the enthusiasm of its base for granted. Likewise, Obama shouldn't assume that his image won't be permanently soiled if his administration fails to avert a monumental environmental disaster in the Gulf.

This article appears in the May 29, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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