A frustrated Obama in reaction mode as IRS actions, Benghazi undermine his agenda

There was a guiding principle early in President Obama’s first term that in Washington it is always better to be pitching than catching.

The stimulus bill, the bank and auto industry bailouts, Wall Street regulation, health-care legislation, Muslim outreach abroad — the first two years featured Obama as pitcher.

But now, as the clearly frustrated president revealed Monday, he finds himself in the position of catcher.

Events and the web of questions surrounding them are forcing the president to respond, often defensively and sometimes angrily, at a time when he would rather be setting the terms of the country’s political conversation.

Political power ebbs more quickly for a second-term president, who usually has only until the next midterm elections to work his will in Washington. After setbacks on gun-control legislation and fiscal negotiations, that time is being absorbed by issues at the edges of Obama’s ability to control.

In a press conference Monday, President Obama addressed the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of groups critical of government, and said, “I’ve got no patience with it. I will not tolerate it.” (The Washington Post)

“You start thinking about history and start thinking in longer sweeps of time,” Obama said Monday during a fundraising event at the New York City home of film producer Harvey Weinstein. “And you start saying to yourself, the 3½ years you’ve got is not a lot.”

Whether it is pressure to live up to his red-line warnings to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or to address a seemingly endless string of questions from Republicans over the attacks last year in Benghazi, Libya, Obama is not talking about what he intended to — or at least not to the degree he had hoped.

Four months after his inauguration, Obama would rather be highlighting the economic agenda contained in his budget proposal, implementation of his health-care act and the need for immigration reform. He has sought to do so in recent weeks, but to little political effect.

When Obama does attempt to push his agenda, his message has been drowned out by questions concerning his administration’s competence and candor. On Friday, an attempt to publicize his health-care law was overshadowed by news that the Internal Revenue Service had investigated conservative groups.

“There is a pattern of modern second terms that presidents seem to be susceptible to difficulty,” said David Kennedy, a presidential historian at Stanford University.

As he stood next to visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron at the White House on Monday, Obama faced questions focusing on two issues consuming political Washington — the IRS revelations and the White House role in shaping the public message in the days after the deadly Benghazi assault.

Surfacing last week were edited versions of the administration’s talking points produced for congressional leaders and U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice within a week of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on a U.S. government compound. The assault killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

The various versions revealed a contest between the State Department and the CIA — whose outposts in Benghazi were attacked — over which would have more influence in telling what transpired on the ground.

“The whole issue of talking points throughout this process has been a sideshow,” Obama said Monday. “The whole thing defies logic, and the fact that this keeps getting churned out frankly has a lot to do with political motivations.”

The issue is not likely to go away soon, even as Obama attempted Monday to put it to rest. For one, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, making her a prime Republican target.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee also announced Monday that it will expand its investigation of the Benghazi assault. It will interview former ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen, who both led the State Department review of the U.S. response to the attacks.

Don Stewart, a top aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said Obama’s problem is that he is having to put out too many fires — “really big fires,” he said.

“If you’re focusing so much of your time on fixing problems that already exist, you’re not creating new things that you want to do,” Stewart said.

At the Monday fundraiser, Obama lamented the enduring political culture in Washington that he campaigned to change in 2008. He also cautioned his Republican opponents, energized again by crisis and the seeds of scandal, that they face another election in two years.

“My intentions over the next 3 ½ years are to govern,” Obama said. “If there are folks who are more interested in winning elections than they are thinking about the next generation, then I want to make sure there are consequences to that.”

David Nakamura in New York and Philip Rucker in Washington contributed to this report.

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