WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama seemed to lose control of his second-term agenda even before he was sworn in, when a school massacre led him to lift gun control to the fore. Now, as he tries to pivot from a stinging defeat on that issue and push forward on others, the president finds himself rocked by multiple controversies that are demoralizing his allies, emboldening his political foes and posing huge distractions for all.
It’s unclear how long he will be dogged by inquiries into last year’s deadly attack in Libya, the IRS targeting of tea party groups and now the seizure of Associated Press phone records in a leak investigation. But if nothing else, these episodes give new confidence and swagger to Republicans who were discouraged by Obama’s re-election and their inability to block tax hikes as part of the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff” deal.
Taken together, these matters will make it harder for the administration to focus on its priorities – racking up a few more accomplishments before next year’s national elections.
“It’s a torrential downpour, and it’s happening at the worst possible time, because the window is closing” on opportunities to accomplish things before the 2014 campaigns, said Matt Bennett, who worked in the Clinton White House. From here on, he said, “it’s going to be very, very difficult.”
So far, there’s no evidence that Obama knew about – let alone was involved in – the government actions in question. But a president usually is held accountable for his administration’s actions, and Republicans now have material to fuel accusations and congressional hearings that they hope will embarrass him, erode his credibility and bolster their argument that his government is overreaching. Even some of his Democratic allies are publicly expressing dismay at the AP phone records seizure.
Obama advisers Tuesday cast the trio of controversies as matters that flare up in an institution as complex as the U.S. government, and they questioned the impact of them. The one exception, advisers said, was the brewing scandal at the Internal Revenue Service, which they see as the issue most likely to strike a chord with Americans.
The IRS has apologized for what it calls “inappropriate” targeting of conservative political groups, including tea party affiliates, that were seeking tax-exempt status in recent years. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday he had ordered a Justice Department investigation.
But he distanced himself from the decision to subpoena the AP records, saying he’d had no part in it, stepping aside because he had been interviewed in a government investigation into who provided information for a news story that disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen.
The press case sparked bipartisan outcry, with several GOP and Democratic officials questioning Holder’s department’s actions in the matter. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the attorney general should resign over the issue, adding: “Freedom of the press is an essential right in a free society.”
Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Democrats, called on the Justice Department to explain the records seizure. And Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House’s second-ranking Democratic leader, said, “This is activity that should not have happened and must be checked from happening again.”
As the press and IRS issues boiled over Tuesday, many conservative activists stayed focused on the attack last September in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Republicans have spent the past eight months accusing the Obama administration of ignoring security needs before the attack, and of revising subsequent “talking points” to play down the role of Islamic terrorists in the assault, which occurred at the height of Obama’s re-election campaign.
Hillary Rodham Clinton – the secretary of state at the time, and a possible presidential candidate in 2016 – is the target of many GOP accusations.
Despite the noisy controversies, White House advisers tamped down suggestions that Obama would make any sudden moves, such as firing top officials or shaking up his team. Aides said they want more details from an inspector general report on IRS actions before deciding how to proceed on that issue.
On all three matters, the White House Tuesday steered blame to other administration agencies. The disputed Benghazi talking points, advisers said, were chiefly the CIA’s work. In discussing the IRS controversy, the White House has emphasized the agency’s independent status. And Obama’s spokesman has deflected all questions about AP phone records to the Justice Department, saying that the president and his aides didn’t know about the case until they read press reports Monday.
Asked why Obama couldn’t simply ask the attorney general about the Justice Department subpoenas, Carney said, “A great deal prevents the president from doing that. It would be wholly inappropriate for the president to involve himself in a criminal investigation that ... involves leaks of information from the administration.”
The White House also tried to change the narrative on Benghazi. Carney accused congressional Republicans of giving a misleading description of an email from top Obama aide Ben Rhodes in order to make it look like the White House was supportive of efforts to downplay the prospect that the Benghazi attack was an act of terror.
“They decided to fabricate portions of an email and make up portions of an email in order to fit a political narrative,” Carney said.
White House officials said Obama plans to press his second-term agenda as planned, but the contentious issues are complicating that effort. Amid new revelations about Benghazi and the IRS, Obama’s attempts last Friday to highlight the implementation of key components of the health care law – his first term’s signature accomplishment – were largely ignored.
Republican consultant John Feehery says the IRS and Benghazi controversies undercut the president’s argument for increasing the government’s role in health care and almost everything else. They undermine the notion, he said, “that government is trustworthy and can fix problems.”
However, the biggest item now before Congress – whether to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of people here illegally – may be barely touched by the hubbub. Many Republican leaders say the GOP must embrace immigration revisions to improve the party’s weak standing with Hispanic voters, a fast-growing constituency. Denying Obama a victory on immigration, they say, could do even more damage to Republicans.
On other issues, including the never-ending partisan dispute over deficit spending, the White House’s preoccupation with potential scandals may give Republicans a greater sense of confidence and support.
The claim of an IRS bias against conservative groups is what worries Democrats like Bennett most. The White House counsel’s office was alerted about the inspector general investigation into the IRS on April 22, but did not inform the president, officials said.
Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist, said Republicans will try to use investigations into the IRS actions, Benghazi and possibly the AP phone records “to run out the clock on the president’s second term.”
“The political risk of running endless congressional investigations is relatively minimal compared to the risk of opposing immigration reform, gun control and some of the other issues that have broad bipartisan support,” McMahon said.