Controversies threaten President Obama's second-term agenda

The White House was besieged Tuesday by three controversies that threatened President Obama’s second-term agenda and his administration’s credibility.


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• The Hill's Justin Sink discusses Obama's tough week


At a confrontational press briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney tried to distance the president from the Internal Revenue Service’s admission that it deliberately targeted conservative groups and the Justice Department’s subpoena of Associated Press telephone records.

Carney flatly denied any White House involvement in either issue, rejected the idea that there had been abuses of power and urged patience as investigations play out.

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By contrast, he adopted an aggressive tone in brushing back questions about the administration’s response to and honesty about the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11. Carney accused Republicans of fabricating inter-departmental emails about the incident and then releasing them to the press.

The testy press conference entrenched concerns at the White House and among its allies that the controversies could overwhelm Obama’s agenda.

“We now have focused the attention of everyone, including all of you, on the lengths to which the administration’s willing to go to quiet the voices of its critics,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday at a press briefing that addressed none of Obama’s legislative priorities.

The scandals also risk reinforcing and worsening some of the biggest criticisms of the president: that he is arrogant, secretive and interested in bending his political opponents to his will rather than in working with them.

The White House has worked aggressively to wrong-foot critics since Obama’s reelection by inviting lawmakers for dinner, golf games and private briefings. But the three controversies have reinforced GOP suggestions that the president is arrogant and invasive.

The White House said Tuesday that Obama’s second term would not be derailed — that he will strike a significant budget deal and secure comprehensive immigration reform — even if only because Republicans want those bills to pass, too.

Carney denied that the White House now had a bunker mentality. Asked if West Wing staff felt “under siege,” he replied, “Absolutely not. We are focused on the things that we can do to help the middle class, the things that we can do to move our economy forward, to help our kids get educated, to work with Congress to achieve what will hopefully be a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill that this president can sign into law.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that, while the episodes “are clearly being used as a distraction for political purposes,” they won’t derail the administration’s second-term priorities.

“What is derailing substantive consideration of important legislation ... is the continuing focus [by Republicans] on political posturing as opposed to positive policy,” he said.

Still, a former Democratic leadership aide conceded Tuesday that the controversies, particularly the one surrounding the IRS, will feed into the argument that Washington can’t be trusted — a notion that could hurt Democrats in swing states in 2014.

“For people who don’t want to like government, it just adds ammunition to that side,” the former staffer said.

Democrats must win 17 seats to retake the House majority — a difficult prospect for a midterm election in a sitting president’s second term. The new controversies could sink those hopes permanently. 

“It is as if the three of them came together to pour gasoline on the fire,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “That does consume the attention of Congress and the Washington press ... and I think is going to burn up all the oxygen in the room for a time here.”

Jillson warns that the larger danger to the administration is that the stories threaten Obama’s popular image of managerial competence. Conservative warnings of overreach and aloofness were marginalized in the president’s first term, with Obama instead being seen as a professorial populist. But the scandals have the potential to validate the dire warnings from Republicans that Obama’s real goal is to expand the reach of a government the GOP sees as burdensome and corrupt. 

“The question and danger is if this is going to be sufficient to tip the Obama image from merely being aloof to arrogant,” Jillson said. “If it’s arrogance, and that arrogance is now showing itself in the IRS going after enemies and the administration going through the records of the AP, all of that can be tied back to the worst of the Bush administration and further back the worst of the Nixon administration and the Johnson administration.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said Tuesday that, “I’ve never seen anything quite like this, except in the past during the Nixon years.”

Asked about comparisons between Obama and Nixon, Carney on Tuesday said reporters should examine history. 

Yet even some of the president’s allies have expressed concerns. 

In a blistering segment on his late-night show, comedian Jon Stewart said the revelations about the IRS and AP gave credence to his “tinfoil behatted” opponents. He went on to issue Obama a sarcastic “congratulations” for “removing the last arrow in your pro-governance quiver: skepticism about your opponents.”

As the questions and controversies stacked up Monday night, the president spoke at a Democratic fundraiser in New York City. In a moment that seemed to acknowledge the mounting forces against him, Obama told supporters that in the coming years, he “sure want[ed] to do some governing.”

“I want to get some stuff done. I don’t have a lot of time. I’ve got three and a half years left, and it goes by like that,” Obama said.

— Mike Lillis contributed to this report.