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Political Scandals Engulf Obama White House

U.S. President Barack Obama bows his head during a prayer on May 15 at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service, an annual ceremony honoring law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty last year.
U.S. President Barack Obama bows his head during a prayer on May 15 at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service, an annual ceremony honoring law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty last year.
By Heather Maher
WASHINGTON -- Only six months have passed since U.S. President Barack Obama was reelected to a second term with a mandate from Americans to advance his agenda.

Now, three political scandals in quick succession have put him on the defensive and unleashed a torrent of criticism, not just from opposition Republicans but also from the media and his own Democratic Party.

First, questions about whether administration officials misled the public about September's deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya gained momentum after leaked e-mails appeared to suggest the administration attempted to downplay terrorist involvement in the incident.

Next, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) revealed that it had given additional scrutiny to conservative groups who were applying for tax-exempt status in the run-up to last year's elections.

And finally, the Justice Department informed the news agency AP that it had secretly gathered phone records of journalists while investigating a national security leak.

The revelations have sparked cries that Obama's administration has abused its power and violated freedom of the press. Together, they are "a perfect storm" of crises for the White House, says Democratic political strategist Chris Lehane.

"There is no question that people are in a froth in Washington [about] this -- much more so than I think they are in other parts of the country," Lehane says. "That said, people are talking about it, people are following it, people are watching it, and I think ultimately, folks are looking to make sure they get some answers on what all of this means."

Lehane, who advised scandal-plagued President Bill Clinton and now helps other politicians survive missteps, is one of several Democrats who have expressed their dismay over the spate of crises or criticized the White House. He says officials broke the first rule of crisis management with their reaction to the September 2012 attack in Libya.

"You don't chase news cycles and put out information until you're 1,000-percent sure that what you're putting out is going to be accurate," Lehane says. "I don't think the administration put that information out with the intent to mislead; I just think they were under enormous pressure because of the presidential campaign to try to answer those questions in that time frame but, as a result, dug themselves a deeper hole."

'Draining'

The chattering classes in Washington are asking whether the trifecta of controversies has doomed Obama's second term.

Stephen Hess, who advised four presidents and is now with the Brookings Institution, says it hasn't. He says Obama is "damaged goods" but can recover his legacy in the three-and-a-half years he still has in office.

"These are not terminal scandals, they're not [Richard Nixon's] Watergate, [Clinton's] Whitewater -- there's no impeachable moment ahead for him," Hess says. "But they raise questions about his administration, about his assistance -- about the degree to which [his people are] exacting oversight over the bureaucracy [and] to the degree which they're bringing political questions into areas where they're not supposed to be."

And that has cost Obama some of his post-reelection momentum, he says.

"The problem is, all of these are debilitating, they're draining, they take a lot of time away from his opportunity to focus on those serious policy questions that are highest on his agenda," Hess says.

Obama's agenda already took a hit this year when Congress defeated his gun-control bill. A hunger strike by inmates at Guantanamo Bay has served as a painful reminder that he has not kept his 2009 promise to close the detention center.

Damage Control

Obama's woes may also hurt Democrats in Congress, who haven't hidden their disappointment. One senator called the situation "very, very troubling," while another said it might have "damaged the foundation of [the] country." Many have called on the administration to be more forthcoming and to take swift corrective action.

The White House did both on May 15, first by releasing 100 pages of administration e-mails on Benghazi and then with a live appearance by Obama at the White House in which he announced that the acting director of the IRS had been fired.

"I have reviewed the Treasury Department watchdog's report, and the misconduct it uncovered is inexcusable," Obama said. "It is inexcusable, and Americans are right to be angry about it and I am angry about it. I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in any agency but especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives."

The White House this week also called on Congress to pass a "press shield" law that would protect journalists from being compelled to reveal confidential sources.

The damage control may be too late. Political observers are already predicting that Democrats could suffer in next year's elections because of the political abuses at the IRS -- an agency that antitax Republicans and far-right political groups view as the embodiment of everything that's bad about government.

"This is perfect. This is going to help anyone who's on that antigovernment right, that always says 'the government screws up in the end, they're out to get you' -- now has their case for next November," MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews lamented.

'On And On'?

Hess and Lehane agree that of the three, the IRS scandal has the potential to be the most politically damaging to Democrats.

Hess says the seizure of reporters' phone records can be explained to the public, at least -- if not to furious journalists -- as a matter of national security, and Americans have already lost interest in the Benghazi controversy.

Republicans, on the other hand, have not. Several Republican-led committees in Congress were already investigating Obama administration actions on Benghazi and other issues and House leaders have now called for more.

Hess predicts that hearings into potential Obama misdeeds will continue well into next year's election season.

"The problem with second-order scandals of these sorts is that they go on and on," Hess says. "There'll be congressional hearings in the House, in the Senate, hearings on top of hearings, and each one will be a bit like pulling a thread from a wool sweater -- it releases a little more information that gets played on in the press."

Obama is hardly the first two-term president to face scandal in his second term.

Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra, Richard Nixon had Watergate, George W. Bush's administration was investigated for leaking the identity of an undercover CIA officer, and Clinton weathered multiple scandals, including an extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky that led to his impeachment.

Lehane says compared to those presidents, Obama is in less trouble.

"In every one of those, the conduct, at least in my view based on what we know right now, was far more serious and generally involved directly the White House and either the president or people very, very close to the president and their conduct," Lehane says. "This is a very different situation based on what we currently know, and it doesn't go directly at the president or his most senior people, or really the internal activities of the White House. And so that would suggest that this isn't going to be anywhere near the level of what you have seen in the past."

But he adds that Clinton emerged unscathed in large part because America was at peace and the economy was booming when he left office.

By that measure, Obama faces much longer odds.

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