President Obama’s disastrous political week

May 14, 2013

It's only Tuesday. But President Obama is already in the midst of one of the worst weeks, politically speaking, of his presidency -- besieged by an burgeoning scandal at the Internal Revenue Service, revelations that the Justice Department secretly obtained phone records of reporters at the Associated Press and ongoing Republican criticism over the terrorist attack in Benghazi last fall.


President Obama, looking unhappy -- and for good reason. Photo by Jonathan Ernst.

Any one of those stories would be enough to knock an Administration back on its heels.  All three -- and with the IRS and AP stories coming in rapid succession over the past 96 hours -- threaten to permanently derail Obama's plans to fortify his presidential legacy in the first 18 months of his second term.

The problems are both practical and symbolic. They have both short term and long term political consequences.  And almost none of it portends well for President Obama and his Administration.

The practical problems are obvious. Congress is already ramping up its investigative operation; Politico reported this morning that approximately one-third of all House committees are looking into some aspect of the Obama Administration. (Sidebar: Welcome to the perils of the party out of the White House controlling one of the chambers of Congress!)

With Congress tied up in investigating the IRS, the AP and Benghazi -- and with the national media covering all three -- the time for Obama's legislative priorities (climate change etc.) are significantly reduced.  Can Congress walk and chew gum at the same time? Sure. But they don't usually do it -- particularly when one party sees significant political advantage in not walking to instead focus all of their time on chewing gum.

The symbolic problems are less readily apparent but potentially far more damaging in the long term.

Remember that President Obama was elected in 2008 in no small part because of his pledge to be the anti-George W. Bush. That is, prizing competence over all in governance and putting a premium on transparency. And both of those pillars are undermined by developments in the past four days.

There's simply no escaping the fact that the IRS' targeting of conservative groups (without any similar flagging of liberal groups) happened on President Obama's watch. That he learned of the scandal from news reports on Friday despite the fact that senior officials at the IRS were aware of it as far back as 2011 makes it worse, not better as it relates to Obama's pledge to restore competence across all aspects of the government.

Then there is the AP phone records story.  While the Justice Department will defend their actions as necessary to ensure leaks don't endanger national security and American lives -- the phone records they obtained were tied to a failed terrorist attack last year -- the idea of an arm of government secretly grabbing phone records from reporters is, literally, the opposite of transparency.

The cumulative weight of the series of stories, of course, is, potentially, the most dangerous thing of all for the Obama Administration.  Group Benghazi, the IRS and the AP into a single narrative and it reads something like this: The government knows better than you. As a result, the government can do whatever it likes.

"This is Big Brother come to life and a witch hunt to prevent Americans from exercising their First Amendment rights," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wrote in a letter to President Obama on Tuesday morning.

While Jindal and Walker were referencing the IRS scandal in particular, their quote could also speak to the broader problem the Obama Administration is facing right now.  The idea of a government run amok, believing in its infallibility and broadly-defined right to do what it wants when it wants is a dangerous one for this President (or any president).

The rapidity of news cycles and the short attention span of the public (and its government) means that what today looks like a series of mountains that Obama might not be able to climb could well look wind up looking a lot more like molehills six months from now.

But, the timing of the revelations coupled with the fact that each of them not only plays into a broader storyline about this presidency but also threatens to undermine key promises made by Obama when he was elected make this week a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad one for him.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | May 14, 2013