Obama struggles to get beyond a scandal trifecta

President Obama addressed the IRS controversy Wednesday evening, announcing that the acting commissioner of the IRS has resigned. Obama reiterated that he “would not tolerate this kind of behavior.” (The Washington Post)

The most corrosive political scandals are the ones that feed a pre­existing story line — which is why the White House could have difficulty putting the current ones behind it any time soon.

In the view of President Obama’s adversaries, recent revelations add evidence to arguments that they have been making about the president all along: that he would do or say whatever it took to get reelected; that his is a philosophy of rampant, invasive big government; that he has not acted within the constraints of the Constitution; that he regards those who oppose him with contempt.

At issue are three ostensibly unrelated sets of events: the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Ben­ghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11; the improper and overly aggressive Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of groups opposed to Obama’s agenda; and the Justice Department’s seizure of phone records of Associated Press journalists.

“He’s got a trifecta going,” said Don Goldberg, who worked in the Clinton White House’s damage-control operation. “When you add it all up, it’s going to be a rough few months going into the summer.”

On Wednesday, the administration was fighting back on all three fronts.

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The White House released 100 pages of e-mails relating to the Benghazi attacks; Obama announced the resignation of the acting IRS director and pledged further action to correct the ­abuses; and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. appeared on Capitol Hill to defend his agency — at one point, going so far as to tell Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a frequent antagonist, that his conduct was “unacceptable. It is shameful.”

Taken together, and seen through the eyes of critics, the three controversies that confront the White House look like a tea party fever dream.

“The news has, I think, awakened the public, beginning to raise questions in their minds as to the direction of this government. And really, to whom is this government accountable?” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Wednesday.

”We are accountable to the families of the victims in Benghazi,” Cantor added. “We certainly are accountable to the taxpayers and the people of this country as to the actions of the IRS. And we certainly have plenty of questions and are accountable to the press in terms of its First Amendment rights and its ability to enjoy those and realize those.”

White House officials dismiss criticism that they have not been quick or aggressive enough in grappling with the various controversies.

“It is not rocket science. There are two rules,” said White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri. “One, to respond as quickly as you can. Two, not at the risk of making the problem worse. It is not worth getting a jump of eight or 10 hours in responding, if you are creating a problem the president will have to live with for years.”

Obama aides and allies say that each of the three cases raises different issues — some of which are legitimate, and some of which are being pumped up by Republicans for maximum political gain.

They count the IRS practices, which the president has denounced and which the Justice Department is investigating, as falling largely in that former category — and say that is the one of the three that carries by far the most potential to resonate with the electorate.

“We’re going to hold the responsible parties accountable,” Obama said in announcing the resignation of the acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller.

The furor over Benghazi, which has centered on how the administration formulated its talking points in the days after the attack, fits in the latter, White House officials say. Americans should be concerned about the security of diplomats overseas, White House officials say, but care little about inter­agency deliberations about how to present the events in Libya.

On Wednesday, White House officials released 100 pages of ­e-mails from that chaotic period — belatedly trying to reset the narrative.

As for the Justice Department’s seizure of the AP phone records, White House officials have said relatively little thus far.

But amid mounting criticism from the left and the right, the White House announced that it is now pushing for enactment of a federal shield law to protect reporters from being compelled to testify about their sources — an ironic move by an administration that has been more aggressive than any other in its pursuit of those who leak classified information.

An earlier version of the bill died in 2009 without being considered by the full Senate, but its sponsor, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said he expected that this week’s events had created a demand for the legislation.

“Right now there are no guidelines, and we feel that there should be guidelines; it shouldn’t be any time a government official wants information from the press that they can just get it,” Schumer told reporters.

Schumer said he was not sure whether his proposed law would have prevented the Justice Department from obtaining the AP’s phone records, but “if this bill was law, there would be an independent arbiter who would have approved any request for information.”

If the spiraling events have set the White House off balance, it may be because Obama’s first term was largely free of scandal, which means his team has little experience in getting ahead of that kind of bad news.

Bill Clinton, by contrast, was beset by contre­temps almost from the moment he took office. And as a result, his White House developed a separate internal operation for handling scandals — or anything that threatened to turn into one.

GOP pollster Neil Newhouse noted that Obama’s approval ratings had already slipped below 50 percent in many polls. The flood of controversies, he said, “makes a bad situation even worse for the president. While things change pretty quickly in politics, it sure looks like it’s going to be a pretty bumpy road for the president in the run-up to the 2014 elections.”

The GOP already is seeking to capi­tal­ize on the turn in the administration’s fortunes.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called Tuesday for Holder to resign. A fundraising appeal was posted on the RNC’s Web site alongside his announcement.

Some are also raising hyperbolic comparisons to such epic scandals as Watergate, predicting that Obama will be impeached.

Democrats, meanwhile, are insisting that, however serious the controversies turn out to be, they should not distract from pressing issues.

“What the American people care about the most is how to make their lives better, how to prevent middle-class incomes from declining, how to deal with jobs, how to fix our broken immigration system,” Schumer said. “So I would hope that we can do two things at once: Get to the bottom of these issues in these three areas, but at the same time, move forward.”

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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