WASHINGTON — The lethal attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya last month has created an unexpected casualty: White House hopes that President Obama would remain relatively unscathed on foreign policy issues in the presidential race.
Questions about whether the Obama administration ignored requests for beefed-up security in Libya and why a sizable CIA presence in Benghazi failed to foresee an attack by dozens of armed extremists have become a distraction — if not a problem — for the president's reelection campaign.
With less than four weeks until election day, the White House is being asked regularly whether security lapses contributed to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi on Sept. 11. Following a contentious House hearing this week on security in Libya, the first question to Joe Biden at the vice presidential debate was: "Wasn't this a massive intelligence failure?"
"Matters of security personnel are appropriately discussed and decided upon at the State Department by those responsible for it," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday as reporters again grilled him.
The Obama campaign has never thought the race would turn on foreign policy, and aides say they don't believe many people will cast votes based on the White House's response to events in Libya. Still, Obama has used his foreign policy record — largely his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the death of Bin Laden — as a potent reminder of the promises he made and kept.
Whether persistent Republican attacks on the administration's shifting accounts, insufficient security and continued instability in Libya will significantly undermine that case remains to be seen.
Republican Mitt Romney has made incremental gains in polls throughout the fall on the question of who would do a better job handling foreign affairs, but the president's standing has remained essentially unchanged since before the Benghazi attack.
About half of voters surveyed in Ohio, Virginia and Florida say they believe Obama would do a better job of handling foreign affairs, compared with about 40% who say Romney would, according to NBC/Wall Street Journal polls conducted this week.
But the questions over the attack in Benghazi have also helped Romney and Republicans put the president on the defensive. In the vice presidential debate, Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, used it to emphasize the GOP ticket's more expansive critique of Obama's tenure.
"It's indicative of a broader problem, and that is what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more — more chaotic, and us less safe," he said.
On Libya, the Republican criticism is two-pronged: questioning whether the Obama administration took the proper precautions to protect U.S. missions in Libya and whether it told the truth about what happened.
The House oversight committee hearing Wednesday featured two officials who had served at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and who testified that they had asked the State Department for additional protection. In the vice presidential debate, Biden denied knowledge of those requests. "Well, we weren't told they wanted more security again," he said. "We did not know they wanted more security again."
On Friday, Romney called Biden out for that assertion. Speaking to about 3,300 supporters at a rally in Richmond, Va., the former Massachusetts governor said Biden was "doubling down on denial."
"We need to understand exactly what happened as opposed to just have people brush this aside," Romney said. "When the vice president of the United States directly contradicts the testimony — sworn testimony — of State Department officials, American citizens have a right to know just what's going on. And we're going to find out."
The Romney campaign has been hammering away on whether the administration relayed accurate information, suggesting that the White House did not want to acknowledge a successful terrorist attack on its watch.
At first, the administration said the attack was started by opportunists taking advantage of the chaos and protests over a video critical of Islam — whether in the region in general or in Benghazi specifically, it wasn't completely clear. Officials now call the attack a deliberate act of terrorism, and the State Department says there were no protests in Benghazi that night.
The Obama administration sought to gain control of the story on Friday. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters that the administration "to this day" did not yet have a "complete picture" of what happened in Benghazi.
"We do not have all the answers," she said. "No one in this administration has ever claimed otherwise. Every one of us has made clear that we are providing the best information we have at that time. And that information continues to be updated."
Carney said the criticism of Obama was politically motivated. When asked Friday about the mother of Sean Smith, an embassy computer specialist killed in the attack, who told CNN this week that she simply wants to know what happened, Carney asserted that the president also wanted to know the answers and would not seek to politicize the tragedy.
"Nobody wants to know more than the president of the United States," Carney said. "So rather than speculate and hypothesize and take political shots on TV, this president has made sure that the FBI is investigating what happened, that the State Department set up the accountability review board to assess what happened in terms of the security posture in Benghazi. And that is underway."