Even in the best of times, Obama’s outreach to Republicans produced little in return — and these are no longer close to the best of times. The question is whether the barely civil relationship between the White House and the opposition party has been irreparably damaged. A related question is how much the controversies will weaken Obama’s standing with the public. Together, the answers will decide how effectively he can govern.
It is too early to draw any broad conclusions about the long-term damage to Obama’s presidency from the news that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups and that the Justice Department collected two months of phone records from Associated Press reporters and editors. But in the moment, these controversies — along with the ongoing congressional investigation of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya — have created major challenges for the administration.
The president and his advisers have tried to insulate the White House from the actions of the IRS and the Justice Department, claiming ignorance. The IRS, officials argued Friday, is quasi-independent. It took the president three days to express his outrage at the agency’s actions. As for the Justice Department’s leak investigation, White House officials said Monday night that it was a department decision that was not forwarded to the president.
Those are temporary responses that probably will not be sufficient over time. The White House may have known nothing about either, but both are now the president’s problem. And both reflect questions about the administration that predate the revelations of the past few days.
The tea party movement has been a political nemesis for Obama since the first year of his presidency. The movement helped turn the battle over health care into one of the most divisive fights of his presidency. The political potency of the grass-roots activists who rallied behind tea party banners helped deliver the worst midterm-election defeat to a party holding the White House in 70 years.
The president and his advisers may not have known anything about IRS targeting of tea party groups for greater scrutiny, but the abuse of power confirmed complaints by conservatives and GOP lawmakers that the practice was taking place and impressions among conservatives that the administration is truly hostile to the tea party movement. Holding those responsible accountable will be only part of Obama’s challenge in responding.
Less is known about the Justice Department’s leak investigation. It was carried out by an administration that came into office talking about the importance of civil liberties, but whose record has been a disappointment to civil libertarians. No one can recall anything as far-reaching as what the Justice Department apparently did in secretly gathering information about the work of AP journalists.
Obama showed his greatest passion Monday when he denounced the GOP-led inquiry of the killing of four Americans in a terrorist attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. That partisan politics are involved in the congressional investigation is certainly the case. In addition to whatever enmity is felt toward the Obama administration over its handling of the aftermath, GOP leaders see former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton for what she is, which is a potentially formidable presidential candidate in 2016.
Obama argued that the current focus on administration talking points is a political sideshow. As others, including The Post’s Glenn Kessler, have noted, the multiple alterations in those talking points appeared to reflect an internal turf war between the State Department and the CIA. Obama argued that it was hardly a coverup.
Given the timing of the attack in Benghazi, which occurred in the heat of a presidential race, White House officials worked to keep the issue from becoming part of the campaign debate — and GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s maladroit handling of it at the start provided convenient cover for the White House. Obama’s campaign put Romney on the defensive, rather than the opposite, although the deaths of the four Americans — and the subsequent security lapses that were enumerated — were a major stain on the administration.
As questions were raised, White House officials avoided drawing conclusions about the origins of the attacks. Even as the head of the National Counterterrorism Center testified that what happened at the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, the president continued to resist labeling it as such. For whatever reason, the administration’s semantic gamesmanship contributed to what the president now dismisses as a sideshow.
Obama is early into his second term, but it has not gone as planned. His gun-control initiative was blocked. Prospects for a grand bargain on the budget are problematic. Immigration reform is moving forward slowly in the Senate and faces uncertainty in the House, although administration officials remain optimistic that Congress eventually will approve a bill.
On Monday night in New York, the president said, “I’m going to do everything I can over the next 31
2 years to continue to reach out to my Republican friends on the other side of the aisle. . . . I want to get some stuff done. I don’t have a lot of time.”
He will have to spend some of that precious time trying to clean up unexpected messes that have landed on his desk. How seriously off track his administration is will depend in large part on how skillfully Obama handles what is before him.