Dem lawmakers buoyed by Obama response to trio of controversies

House Democrats left Washington on Friday insisting they're not worried about political fallout after one of the most difficult weeks the Obama administration has endured.


Democrats know their fate in the 2014 elections hinges to a large degree on Obama's popularity, and they say the president has responded appropriately to a trio of controversies involving the IRS, the Justice Department and the terrorist attack last year in Benghazi, Libya.

The Democrats are also cheering the aggressive approach Obama used in the latter half of the week, saying the feistiness has quelled criticisms that the president is steering from the back seat of his own administration. 

"The president's done a good job of stabilizing the situation, working to try and get ahead of the curve so that we can focus on jobs and the economy," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said Friday. "When it comes right down to it, those are the issues of the most concern to people."

Still, Democrats already have an uphill climb to regain the House, needing 17 seats in the midterm elections to win back the Speaker's gavel – no easy task in a cycle when, historically, the party of second-term incumbent presidents fares poorly at the polls. 

And the last week will not help make 2014 an anomaly. 

Obama has come under heavy fire after it was revealed that the Internal Revenue Service focused special attention on conservative groups and the Justice Department swept up telephone records from the Associated Press, unbeknownst to the news organization.

Combined with the ongoing probe into the State Department's handling of the deadly, Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the episodes have only fueled charges – long-lodged by conservatives on and off Capitol Hill – that the administration habitually tramples the Constitution at the expense of civil liberties.

"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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe bizarre back story of the filibuster The Bible's wisdom about addressing our political tribalism Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters this week.

Yet while Republicans have pounced on the controversies with charges of ineptitude, arrogance – even criminality – within the administration, the Democrats are treating those criticisms as partisan musings that won't resonate beyond the Beltway.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), vice-chairman of the Democrats' Steering and Policy Committee, said his constituents are simply more concerned about jobs, immigration reform and other issues that hit much closer to home than executive-branch scandals.

"The national media seems to be focused on this, and I can understand. But back in the district, I mean, I got some interviews, and none of them were on this issue," Cuellar said Friday. "Literally, once you land and the the door opens, it's a different environment."

Rep. Charles Rangel (D), a member of the Ways and Means Committee that began investigating the IRS saga Friday, agreed. The 22-term New Yorker said the trio of controversies, far from being a Democratic liability in 2014, will be forgotten within a few months.

"I don't see this playing out in November '13," Rangel said, emphasizing the "13" as coming a full year before the midterms. "The American people are going to get exhausted with everything being negative – no jobs program, no tax reform, no alternative to the health plan [and] no immigration bill."

After several days working behind the scenes, Obama emerged Wednesday with a series of aggressive moves that seem to have helped his cause as it relates to the controversies. 

First, the White House released more than 100 pages of emails related to drafting of Benghazi talking points by the CIA, the State Department and the White House. 

The emails threw into doubt earlier charges from Republicans that the White House was involved in scrubbing the mention of specific terrorist groups from the final version sent to lawmakers. 

Later the same day, the president held a press conference in which he announced the firing of the acting commissioner of the IRS. 

On Thursday, Obama went a step further, appointing a new IRS chief in Daniel Werfel, a senior official in the Office of Management and Budget, and staging a press conference from the Rose Garden in which he testily refuted the charges that he's not in charge.

The president's tone has angered Republicans, but Democrats heading home for the weekend said they're spirited by his pluck.

"He's being very engaged now, he's being very proactive and that's what you need to do in a crisis like this," Cuellar said. "You just can't wait and let everything define you, so I think he's trying to move ahead and trying to define the issues before he gets defined."

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) echoed that message.

"He's shown a genuine concern and genuine outrage," Castro said Friday, "and he's doing what he needs to do."

Obama on Friday sought to change the subject altogether. Even as Republicans were grilling the newly-fired head of the IRS on Capitol Hill, the president was at a manufacturing plant in Baltimore urging Congress to return its gaze on the economy.

"Sometimes our leadership isn't focused where it needs to be focused," Obama said, referring to the string of controversies without mentioning them. "We've been able to clear away the rubble of the crisis … but our work is not done. Our focus cannot drift."

With Republicans vowing the investigations have only begun, however, that's likely a message of wishful thinking.