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Opinion | John E. Sununu

Panic sets in at the White House

 President Obama said, “the private sector is doing fine.”

kevin lamarque/reuters

President Obama said, “the private sector is doing fine.”

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for President Obama, one of those stretches where everything seems to go south at once. The economy is soft, his poll numbers are down, and Europe has the markets on edge; Romney is even beating him in the money race. What was once hailed as personal confidence — or condemned as arrogance — is long gone. Panic has set in, and it’s making Team Obama do strange and disturbing things.

In Wisconsin, the result was merely a bit of comic relief. Fearful of making a personal appearance in a losing cause, Obama couldn’t even bring himself to phone it in. Instead, he packed the power of the presidency into a 95-character tweet endorsing Tom Barrett’s challenge to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Barrett, a plainspoken former congressman, is far too nice to speak the truth: Thanks for nothing.

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Next came a more pronounced gaffe: Obama’s statement at a press conference that “the private sector is doing fine.” Panic can make anyone say crazy things, but blurting out irrational statements isn’t exactly ideal for a president of the United States.

Aides tried desperately to walk things back, but the damage was done precisely because it revealed an element of truth about Obama — that he views the government as the critical source for economic activity in America. That’s why the core of his “jobs” program consists of more infrastructure spending and bailouts for state and local governments.

For months, the White House has been assuming that the economy would be humming by Election Day. Caught flat-footed by the recent slowdown, they have nothing to offer but reheated leftovers from the 2009 stimulus — proposals that not even the Democratic-controlled Senate has passed. Add to that the fact that they will only add to our crushing debt; no Congress will raise taxes in an election year. Memo to the president: The solution to too much debt is not more debt.

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Panic-driven responses aren’t just silly or embarrassing; they can be dangerous too. With no good economic news in sight, the White House has embarked on a mission to burnish the president’s national-security credentials. In their desperation to write a compelling narrative for their candidate, Obama’s operatives appear to have disclosed highly classified information.

Washington without leaks would be like watching the Weather Channel for more than 10 minutes: monotonous and repetitive, with very little new information. But exposing national security secrets has always been a sensitive issue for both parties. When filmmakers were given special access to details of the Bin Laden raid, the protests were mostly Republican. When a Pakistani doctor was imprisoned because his identity was exposed in a New York Times article sourced to administration officials, the concern became bipartisan. The most recent leaks involve highly classified plans to undermine Iran’s nuclear program — and appear to have come directly from the White House. That has most everyone in Congress calling for an investigation.

Unfortunately, America’s chief law enforcement officer has big problems of his own. Attorney General Eric Holder is already facing contempt of Congress charges for failing to turn over documents related to a dubious federal anti-gun-running operation. Now, rather than appointing an independent counsel to investigate the national-security leaks, he’s handed responsibility to two political appointees. The same Democrats who demanded an independent counsel in the Valerie Plame case during the Bush administration have gone strangely silent.

Grilled last week before a Senate Committee, Holder awkwardly proclaimed, “I heard the White House press officer say yesterday that the president has absolute confidence in me.” The only thing that could have made that statement more damning would be if the president had tweeted it.

None of these mishaps would be telling on its own. Taken together, they expose a White House and a campaign that are adrift, out of momentum, and out of touch. With five months to go, the election could easily go either way. But for Obama, potential downsides loom large, especially as economic forecasts keep getting revised downward.

As Mike Tyson famously observed, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Then the panic sets in.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former Republican US senator from New Hampshire.
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