(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press) (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

How much have the IRS, Benghazi and AP phone records stories hurt the president? To paraphrase Senator Howard Baker’s famous Watergate question, “How much is the president hurting and when will it stop?”

For my money, Benghazi will fade in the public’s mind, and Obama seems genuinely angry about the IRS targeting of right-wing political groups, as demonstrated in an effective statement last night. He seems likely to keep firing people until he gets that one right.

However, it’s the most obscure controversy and the one currently lowest on the public’s menu of concerns that may do the most lasting harm: the seizure of reporters’ phone records. It’s not that the public cares, yet. But there is an important question about the  unprecedented scope of the dragnet against AP reporters and the dramatically expanded use of these types of covert operations against the media generally by this administration. Who authorized these activities and for what purposes? I can believe a rogue or dumb operation in the IRS, and I can accept that blame for the tragedy of Benghazi, to the extent one can proportion it, may lie mostly with the rivalry between the State Department and the CIA. But sweeping, repeated wire-taps of reporters? Hard to imagine someone would not have wanted “cover their behind” authorization from a very high source before embarking on that highly combustible mission. And, on what basis might that green light have been granted? There ought to be a line between stories a White House finds dangerous to its political prospects and one that truly endangers the nation’s security. Was it crossed?

Last night, the president was weakest on his response to the seizing of media phone records. He called for a renewed focus on passing a law to shield reporters from presumably the very kind of activity his administration has engaged in for four years. Right now, Republicans look like they will punch themselves out on the obvious targets of Benghazi and the IRS while missing the story perhaps closest to the White House and most important to our freedoms.