Holder controversies could weigh on Obama in 2012 race

The contempt vote Thursday against Attorney General Eric Holder could spell trouble for President Obama -- not just for his administration's efforts to lock down Fast and Furious documents, but also for his re-election campaign.

Holder over the past three-and-a-half years has become, according to one polling outfit, the most unpopular member of Obama's Cabinet. The attorney general is associated with a string of controversial decisions -- from his response to the Fast and Furious probe to his department's suits against state immigration laws to the campaign to halt GOP-led voter ID laws in Florida and elsewhere -- that have riled conservatives, even some Democrats.

The contempt vote, for his critics, is one more notch against Holder. And it could fuel his becoming a divisive figure during the presidential campaign as opponents try to cast him as an albatross around Obama's neck.

"I think that it's the biggest non-economic story (in 2012)," GOP pollster Adam Geller said of Fast and Furious. "You can bet that it's going to certainly get some mention, as it should, as a political issue."

The attorney general, while cast as a stalwart defender of civil rights among Democrats, has an uncanny ability to bother elected Republicans. And according to Rasmussen, the general public hasn't exactly warmed up to him either.

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The latest available polling, from late April, showed his unfavorable rating at 47 percent -- and just 17 percent of people reported having positive feelings about the attorney general. By contrast, the most popular Cabinet member, Secretary Hillary Clinton, boasted a 53 percent favorable rating.

Geller said he expects outside political groups, though not necessarily the Mitt Romney campaign itself, to make Fast and Furious and potentially Holder's other controversies an issue in the general election race.

Still, he cautioned the groups not to go "overboard," since the race will still be about the economy -- as well as the federal health care overhaul which was upheld by the Supreme Court on Thursday.

"There's a double-edged sword here. It is a huge issue, however the economic issue (and the health care law) are all going to be the big issues," he said. "We have to pick and choose how we do this."

Some congressional Democrats, indicating an early concern about being tied to Holder in a tough election year, broke with their party Thursday. Seventeen House Democrats voted for contempt.

Still, Obama administration officials and congressional Democrats have largely rallied around Holder. Though some leading congressional Democrats have voiced serious concern about Operation Fast and Furious, they have decried the GOP-led contempt push as an act of political theater.

"This isn't oversight. This is overkill," Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, D-S.C., said in a statement.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer defended Holder in a statement released Thursday, describing him as "an excellent attorney general."

He noted that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who led the contempt charge, "acknowledged that he had no evidence -- or even the suspicion -- that the attorney general knew of the misguided tactics used in this operation."

Indeed, the contempt vote concerned documents pertaining to why the administration initially stated, incorrectly, that it did not knowingly allow guns to "walk" across the U.S.-Mexico border. That statement was later retracted. Republicans want documents subsequent to the erroneous February 2011 statement to help shed light on what was going on behind the scenes -- the administration has claimed executive privilege over some of those documents.

Holder was defiant in the face of the contempt votes Thursday, one criminal and one civil. He described it as "the regrettable culmination of what became a misguided and politically motivated investigation during an election year."

And he went on to defend other initiatives that have agitated his GOP opponents, such as the DOJ crackdown on state laws requiring photo ID in order to vote.

"The Justice Department has continued to move forward in fulfilling its critical law enforcement responsibilities whether it is with regard to prosecuting financial and health care fraud ... or challenging proposed voting changes and redistricting maps that would potentially disenfranchise millions of voters. This Department of Justice has not been afraid to act nor have I been," he said. "Now some of these enforcement decisions were not politically popular and helped to explain the actions that were taken today by the House. As attorney general, I do not look to that which is politically expedient."

Republicans leveled similar charges in the Democrats' direction.

"Today's vote affirms the integrity of our system of checks and balances and sends a clear message that justice must always trump politics," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a statement.