WASHINGTON - It isn't Mitt Romney who's giving President Obama fits as he pivots to reelection 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 might 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 and for the American people," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
But taken together, the events have overwhelmed the president's agenda. The Secret Service scandal broke while Obama was in Cartagena, Colombia, last weekend for a Summit of the Americas with more than 30 Western Hemisphere leaders. Back home, the headlines and news anchors were hardly focusing on the summit, instead playing up the fact that 11 Secret Service agents 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 on Tuesday and to help the economy on Wednesday were drowned out by further Secret Service revelations and by gruesome photos depicting GIs with the bodies of Afghan insurgents.
"Even though you may not be losing ground because it's not the White House taking the hits, you're no longer gaining ground because the White House doesn't get its message out," said Ari Fleischer, who was a spokesman for President George W. Bush.
Obama quickly tried to put distance between himself and the accounts of misbehavior. White House spokesmen avoided getting into specifics, instead citing investigations under way and referring reporters to the Secret Service or the GSA or the Pentagon.
Yet, the president can't turn his back on the problems, either, and is ultimately held responsible for restoring the reputations of troubled agencies.
"Part of the president's job is to protect the institutions of government," said Paul Light, an expert on government bureaucracies and professor of public service at New York University. "He is administrator in chief whether he likes it or not."
Some Republicans were folding the Secret Service and GSA episodes together with the case of Solyndra, a solar firm that received a half-billion-dollar federal loan and was touted by the Obama administration before declaring bankruptcy last year.
Each of the recent events also works in its own corrosive way.
The GSA's $823,000 Las Vegas conference, complete with gourmet food, clown, and mind reader, has given Republicans ammunition to attack government bloat. And for that, there is a ready audience.
Romney this week called the GSA "embarrassing" to the Obama administration and stressed that leadership is set at the top. He was more nuanced about the Secret Service, which is also providing security for him on the campaign trail. He urged firing employees caught in the incident involving prostitutes but said he had confidence in the agency's director, Mark Sullivan.
As for the photographs that purport to show U.S. soldiers with the bodies of Afghan insurgents, they feed an on-and-off image of American warriors over the last 10 years that was most notoriously damaged by pictures from Abu Ghraib, an Iraqi prison where U.S. military police photographed themselves abusing detainees.