The White House struggled Tuesday to explain an outburst by press secretary Robert Gibbs, who called dissatisfied liberals “crazy” and in need of drug testing.
“They will be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we've eliminated the Pentagon,” Gibbs told the Hill newspaper. “They wouldn't be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”
Gibbs added, “I hear these people saying [President Obama] is like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested. I mean, it's crazy.”
The interview sent the administration into rapid retreat — seeking forgiveness from liberal supporters for remarks that accidentally illustrated how the Obama administration is handling criticism from the left.
“I watch too much cable, I admit,” Gibbs said in a statement e-mailed to liberal bloggers describing his earlier remarks as “inartful.”
“We should all, me included, stop fighting each other and arguing about our differences,” Gibbs said.
Even so, Gibbs is closer to Obama than most of his modern predecessors were to the presidents they served. When Gibbs expresses an unguarded opinion, it is often one he has channeled directly from the president.
While acknowledging the internal frustrations behind Gibbs' earlier statements, the administration also took pains to dial them back — and to blame the news media.
“Is there ever some frustration from anyone who works in this building about the way it's being covered? Sure,” said deputy press secretary Bill Burton. “Having spoken with Robert a couple of times today, I think he was just talking about the folks who mostly live in this town and talk on cable TV.”
But pressure from the left has been gathering for some time — starting with Obama's decision to drop a public option from health care reform.
He also failed to push hard for climate change legislation, backed off a promise to close Guantanamo Bay prison in one year, opposed gay marriage, and dragged his feet on a still-pending policy change on gays in the military.
He has continued his predecessor's policies on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — all compromises that underscore the difference between promises made campaigning and the realities of governance.
Stephen Hess, an expert on the presidency at the Brookings Institution, said Gibbs' remarks shows how “unprepared” many in the Obama administration were for the rigors of the White House.
“A lot of things had come too easy for them — a substantial election victory, and an almost messianic moment with the inauguration,” Hess said. “Governing is hard, and journalists are not your friends during office hours.”
With less than two years in office, Obama has dropped to a 45 percent approval rating as he heads into a crucial midterm election season.