Obama's 'juice' squeezed by scandals?

The burst of controversy out of the IRS and Justice Department, in addition to lingering GOP pressure over Benghazi, has sidelined attention to President Obama's agenda. 

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama walking from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington May 9. The president finds himself rocked by multiple controversies that are demoralizing his allies, emboldening his political foes -- and posing huge distractions.
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Suddenly, the Obama administration is under siege. And predictably, media talk of a “second-term curse” is taking hold as the White House tries to push back on a narrative of scandal that seems to befall US presidents after reelection.

From the Internal Revenue Service to Benghazi to the Justice Department, the actions of US officials are under scrutiny, leaving the White House gasping for air as it insists President Obama’s second-term agenda is alive and well.

But if, months from now, the White House is still playing 20 questions with the media over controversial behavior by government agencies, then Mr. Obama will have a hard time convincing Americans he’s still focused on policy. Typically, the first year of a president’s term is the most fertile period for passing legislation, before politics takes over in the run-up to midterm elections.

Recommended: IRS 101: Seven questions about the tea party scandal

For now, the White House is struggling to make the questions stop. Even close allies of the president suggest the White House’s posture is too passive.

But whether Obama’s “juice” for second-term accomplishments is being squeezed by scandal is another matter. The president won reelection by a convincing margin and started his second term with decent job-approval ratings. But he couldn’t get legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers out of the Senate, despite emotional speeches around the country and 90 percent support in opinion polls.

The power of the presidential bully pulpit is a “myth,” says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Also, a president can’t, through sheer force of personality, force a balky Congress to bend to his will if the members don’t believe it’s in their own political interests to vote the way he wants, Mr. Edwards says.

“This notion that presidents – Lyndon Johnson is the prime case – can pin members’ backs to the wall and get whatever they want, that’s nonsense,” he says. “That’s not how it works.”

Next up in Congress is the battle over comprehensive immigration reform. Most important to the prospects for legislation is whether Republicans leaders can get enough of their own members to go along with the bill. The GOP’s need to attract Latino voters could be the most salient factor in driving Republicans to work with Democrats on the issue – not presidential pressure.

So where does all this leave Obama, as he tries to get back on top of his game?

He can start by being more proactive, suggests a former top aide. When news broke last Friday that the IRS had subjected conservative groups to extra scrutiny in their applications for tax-exempt status, Obama waited three days to say anything.  

At a press conference Monday, the president cast himself as a member of the public, saying he learned about the IRS’s actions from the same news reports everyone else did. Then, in lawyerly language, he expressed conditional outrage over what had happened.

“If, in fact, IRS personnel engaged in the kind of practices that had been reported on and were intentionally targeting conservative groups, then that's outrageous and there's no place for it,” Obama said. He added that he would wait for the report by an inspector general to comment definitively.

Speaking Tuesday on MSNBC, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs suggested Obama could have gotten out in front of the story by not waiting so long to respond. And the president could have, for example, announced formation of a bipartisan panel of former IRS commissioners to address how the tax status of politically oriented nonprofits is determined.  

The White House’s posture of “if this happened, then we’ll look at it” has sounded “exceedingly passive to me,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Later on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a criminal inquiry into the IRS situation.

On Benghazi, Obama’s tone and body language were markedly different. The controversy – a holdover from the first term – centers on how the administration discussed the September 2012 terrorist attack on a US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the US ambassador. At issue is the revelation of multiple edits of talking points for administration officials that removed references to an Al Qaeda-affiliated group and CIA warnings about terrorist threats.

Obama dismissed the Benghazi talking points as a “sideshow” with “political motivations.”

Jennifer Duffy, a nonpartisan political analyst, predicts the Benghazi issue will fade in public consciousness, while the IRS controversy could have legs.

“Most Americans don’t like the IRS,” says Ms. Duffy, of the Cook Political Report. “The IRS hits closer to home. Benghazi is harder to follow.”

What’s more, the IRS scandal could affect implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). When the individual mandate to purchase health insurance goes into effect on Jan. 1, the IRS will be in charge of overseeing compliance. The ACA – aka Obamacare – is already hurtling toward an uncertain future, and new tarnish to the IRS’s image adds yet another problem.

On Monday night, the Obama administration’s woes deepened. The Associated Press revealed that the Justice Department had seized 2012 phone records of numerous AP reporters and editors, without advance warning. The AP said DOJ’s action may have been related to a criminal investigation into leaked information about a foiled terror plot in Yemen.

Again, the White House pointed elsewhere. Ask the Justice Department, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday, saying it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing criminal investigation. 

“The president is a strong defender of the First Amendment and a firm believer in the need for the press to be unfettered in its ability to conduct investigative reporting and facilitate a free flow of information,” said Mr. Carney, himself a former reporter. But he also defended the Justice Department’s need to investigate alleged criminal activity. This administration has aggressively pursued intelligence leaks to the media, a point not lost on reporters.

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